If you're lucky, you have an old uncle (or aunt) who is gruff and sweet, plain-spoken and wise, weathered and treasured. Richard Terrill comes across like one of those priceless people in his new book of essays, "Essentially," which touches on subjects as disparate as trout fishing, jazz, neighbors, dogs, vintage movies and aging.
Terrill, who lives in St. Louis Park, writes about people, places and events in Minnesota, Wisconsin (his riff on the differences between those two states, especially their bars, is a kick to read) and China (where he taught for a time). Terrill's an accomplished fellow — professor emeritus at Minnesota State University Mankato, where he taught film history and nonfiction writing; a jazz saxophonist; outdoorsman, essayist, poet, husband and stepdad. In 2004, his poetry collection "Coming Late to Rachmaninoff" won a Minnesota Book Award.
His deceptively folksy prose (which occasionally slides into poetry, most poignantly when he's writing of the brilliant, doomed jazz pianist Bill Evans) is graceful and conversational, rich in wry wit and insight about himself and others. His observations contain endearing contradictions that we can relate to, as when he complains about a neighbor's incessantly barking dog, then rhapsodizes about his own pooches, including one that's incurably hell on wheels.
Terrill is best presented by a sampling from these essays:
On his 89-year-old mother, who has lost her memory: " 'You just have to get out of bed and start your routine,' I tell her. It's a lame proposition, I know. 'Why?' she asks. Her contradictions, out of character for the person she used to be, are now the most rational feature of her discourse."
On knowing when to jump in when playing in a jazz ensemble: "How to know on which occasions to lay out till you're sure, and when to just wing it and play? How much this is like the lives we all lead outside the rehearsal room. Musicians or not, we each listen to the moments as we live them. Play or wait, play or rest."
On camping in the Wisconsin wilderness: "Evening. … The moon is white silver. … Cold rises from the earth. It's a good feeling, because the cold helps me tell the difference between the body and what's outside the body."
On clueless fellow neighbors and citizens (to whom he is unfailingly kind): "At any given moment, I don't know much. But I know I don't know much, and although I don't like thinking this way, increasingly it seems that other people aren't as aware of their own ignorance as I am of mine."
On aging: "I suspect the guy who coined the phrase 'you're only as old as you feel' was in the marketing department somewhere. That adage assumes that if you indeed do feel your age, there is something wrong with you. It assumes, probably correctly, that people who feel old don't buy as much stuff as people who still think they have endless years before them."
On history: "Why do we judge the past by the values we hold today (e.g., Because the patriarchal Founding Fathers owned slaves, they have nothing to offer us.)? Should we not instead fear the future will judge us by the values people hold then? Do we suppose they'll think us enlightened, as we drive around in our SUVs and reproduce ourselves until other species disappear because there's nowhere left for them to live?"
Terrill writes out of what he calls his "dark attitude." But he also sees the beauty in our daily lives, and, despite his pessimism about the future of humanity, believes it's worth sticking around just to see what happens next. Like his worldview, his writing is jazzlike, nuanced, unexpected, arresting, and yes, essential.
Pamela Miller, a former Star Tribune night metro editor, lives in Old Frontenac, Minn. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By: Richard Terrill.
Publisher: Holy Cow Press of Duluth, 200 pages, $19.95.
Events: Literary Bridges, 2 p.m. Sept. 11, Next Chapter Bookseller, St. Paul; Twin Cities Book Festival, Oct. 15, Minnesota State Fairgrounds.