At this point in my life, after more than 40 years as a journalist and writer, I just want to be with people, and that includes authors, who can teach me something or make me laugh.
Willard Spiegelman, Hughes Professor of English at Southern Methodist University, does both.
At first, I thought the author of a book titled Senior Moments: Looking Back, Looking Ahead would be an academic geezer calling up pedantic allusions as he remembers the days of wine and roses and rages against the dying of the light.
Well, it’s true that Spiegelman, who’s interested in Greek and Latin, has written dozens of scholarly papers and recorded lectures on “How to Read and Understand Poetry” for the Great Courses series, can sling around arcane, arty allusions.
After all, he was editor in chief of the august literary quarterly Southwest Review for more than 30 years and has been a regular contributor to the Leisure & Arts pages of the The Wall Street Journal for more than a quarter-century.
But stick with him, for he’s an agreeable, wise and witty companion — edifying, fun and fearless as he proffers lessons in happiness and aging learned during his long, distinguished career.
In the preface to this essay collection and memoir based on his 71 years on the planet, he gets right to it: “Life has not been a dress rehearsal,” he says. “It is what we have, and all that we will have had.”
Since he’s a nonreligious nonbeliever, an orthodox afterlife based on reward and punishment seems implausible. Instead, he believes, we come into the world alone and exit the same way to confront the final, eternal silence.
“The fun, all the pleasure and adventure, lies in between,” he says, then describes what delights him (talking, books and looking at art) and kvetches about what irks him (noise in restaurants, museums and libraries, which is why he never goes anywhere without earphones).
The Philly native, who has an erudite, candid, conversational style, got his talking chops from his loud, noisy Jewish extended family and from his mother, who, he says, “had a mouth on her.”
She had strong opinions and wasn’t timid about sharing them. And neither is the author as he muses on the subject of “Talk,” ending with his move to Texas, where both language and everything else at first seemed foreign to him.
His essay “Dallas” could have just as easily been titled “Stranger in a Strange Land” as Spiegelman recalls his arrival at Love Field on “a broiling, torpid, sweat-inducing day (there is no other kind in North Texas from June through September) in August 1971.”
Although, he says, it occurred to him to rush back to the tarmac to try to reboard the plane for its return trip to Boston, he gamely stuck it out and acclimated to life in Texas, if never as a Texan.
And while his ruminations on the city make author Larry McMurtry, who has had a longtime public aversion to Dallas, look like a booster, they’re honest, lyrical and funny.
As a Yankee, he missed lilacs, horse chestnut trees, poplars and ginkgoes but appreciates our wisteria and catalpa. And while, he says, Texas food won’t qualify for anyone’s low-fat, low-carb, low-sodium diet, he adores chicken-fried steak.
Spiegelman bemoans the absence here of wild nature, pedestrian life and four distinct seasons. He can’t get over the way everything warrants a standing ovation with “whoops, barks and hollers,” sport is a religion, and finding a native in Dallas is as difficult as finding a good bagel.
In his essay “Japan,” he explains why he never felt “so unmoored, unconnected yet exhilarated, and so fully myself” as in the Land of the Rising Sun. And why, upon returning home to Dallas, he decided after four decades to move to New York.
And it’s in “Manhattan” that the poet in Spiegelman soars. He has seen as much of the city’s five boroughs as he can, averaging 6 pedestrian miles a day, and his 11-hour, 20-mile walking gastronomic-and-spirits tour of Manhattan from tip to toe with friends is a joy.
The essay on “Books,” listing two of his favorite contemporary authors as Shirley Hazzard and James Salter as well as old favorites like Austen, Cather, Dickens, George Eliot, Forster and Woolf, is a blissful must for all bibliophiles.
True, Spiegelman can be a bit of a snob and sometimes a little too cute referring to Marilyn Monroe as “a great twentieth-century intellectual,” but this engaging book is a gift for adults of all ages, especially AARP’s.
Senior Moments ends with thoughtful meditations on “Art,” “Nostalgia” and “Quiet.” It does what a great teacher can do: motivate. He makes us want to walk around our city, read, savor the blessings of silence, slow-look at art and practice “the essential human art of conversation.” READ MORE
Plan your life
Willard Spiegelman has several Dallas events scheduled for Senior Moments:
Thursday, he’ll appear at 7:30 p.m. at the Wild Detectives, 314 W. Eighth St., along with Greg Brownderville, the new editor ofSouthwest Review.
Sept. 22, he’ll speak at 6:30 p.m. at the Nasher Sculpture Center, 2001 Flora St. Register at nashersculpturecenter.org by Sept. 15.
Oct. 26, he’ll appear at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, 2719 Routh St. 6:30 p.m. reception; 7 p.m. presentation.
Looking Back, Looking Ahead
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24)