A Curmudgeon’s Guide to Praise

Published in the Los Angeles Review of Books.


. . . As I write this, on an August night before the start of another semester, I think of the generations of young people who keep pouring into the city, a few of whom will end up as my students at NYU. To them, the city may still be the nation’s “symbol of aspiration and faith,” as E.B. White put it, but it’s also a city that can no longer dream big on its own. Follow the headlines long enough and you’ll see the pattern: the ARC tunnel canceled; public vitriol accompanying the building of each new bike lane; a new subway line, 83 years after it was proposed, finally inching up Second Avenue, all of which suggests that ambition for middle-aged cities – and perhaps their middle-aged inhabitants – means making more efficient use of what’s already within your grasp. Farther out, in a realm few of my students ever acknowledge, politicians quarrel over what adolescent utopian dream of ourselves we should latch onto instead of delving into the specifics of governing a country with declining resources.

What I would like to give my son, in the midst of all this, seems woefully small: the idea that words and facts actually have a definition and aren’t infinitely bendable, that they aren’t just tools to use in a covert attempt to manipulate the world, and that we have a fundamental obligation, whether we’re talking to children or students or some potential swing vote in Iowa, to not mislead or be careless with our words. I’d like my son to develop a realistic enough self-image that he won’t fall apart the day he runs into himself on a street corner, like I did when I was graduating from college and, confronted with the fact that I couldn’t function on my own, concluded that all the praise I’d received must have been meant for an imposter.

Recently my son started asking to “talk day,” a request to narrate everything he’s done since getting up, so I’ve described in loving detail all the vignettes I’ve observed – how exactly he built that tower of blocks or put an avocado on his head – pausing to ask a question or see if he can complete a phrase. It’s both a miracle and a burden to think that the most fundamental thing about us, our identity, is an act of close collaboration, and that my child is learning to recognize himself, in part, through my words. In my own fumbling way, with half-remembered details I observed guzzling coffee, I strive to give him the day itself, in all its minutia, and not my feelings about it. The mundane, too, can be filled with love. He has enough time to dream on his own.