I Remember John Locke
M J Melneck
My graduate studies (University of Arkansas—“How ‘bout them Hawgs!”) included an advanced course in Comparative Literature, taught by a wonderful man named John Locke. Professor Locke, a Zen Buddhist, spoke in the present progressive tense. He was brilliant, patient, challenging. And he had hair implants, which is another matter, but I’d not seen such an arrangement before, and not since. It was wholly within his character.
One dreary Arkansas morning my wife and I found the day when we had to have our veterinarian put our dog to sleep. Casey had always been crazy in those good dog ways; Pat thought he’d been a riverboat gambler in a prior life, given as he was to helping her play solitaire if she would be kind enough to lay the cards out on the floor (yes, Virginia, we’re in that bygone era before computer solitaire). He was Pat’s dog; early in our marriage he decided that if we were playing in the back yard, my ankle was Casey catnip. My leg was particularly tasty if Pat was on my shoulders and I was waltzing around too quickly for his comfort. He tolerated my intrusion into his relationship, but he never trusted me. And finally Casey was 16, and seriously epileptic, and he wasn’t having fun any more. It was his time—you could see it in his eyes. And so we took him. And we cried, and hugged, and, like all good dogs, Casey went across the Rainbow Bridge, to heaven.
Later that morning John Locke lectured on statistical likelihood. Taught us, perhaps in his Zen fashion, how things can approach, but never reach, 100% certainty (…just because the sun rose this morning doesn’t mean…and so on). I’ve long since forgotten what “things” Dr. Locke might exclude from that all-but-infinite list of cosmic uncertainties--infinite goodness, perhaps, or some other abstract or absolute—though in John Locke’s world that morning there were no absolutes. I have perfect clarity, though, about that point where pain and obligation collided headlong and made me nauseous. In perfect clarity, I wasn’t in the mood for any of it.
John and I got into it like this:
“Are you telling us that though our vet just gave a 16 pound dog enough Phenobarbital to drop a charging rhino, there’s a statistical likelihood (sneering with sarcasm) that the dog might not die?” I said.
“I’m understanding your concerns this morning,” John said. “I am one with your loss.”
He was right, of course, and I was wrong, and that morning I was stone deaf to logic or reason.
Years followed. We got two new dogs, Nikki and Trapper. It turned out that Nikki, a red and white Cocker Spaniel, was a Zen Buddhist. She came on little dustmop feet and was a puppy all of her 5,000 plus days. Trapper? Trapper was a belligerent redneck. Again, wholly within each of their characters.
Over time I learned more than a little about statistical likelihood from John Locke—I learned how to learn. How to care. I thought I’d been pretty good at caring up to then, but it turns out that caring isn’t a measurable thing. It’s a process, and, if we’re lucky, its capacity grows with us all our lives.
I wrote, studied, took my MFA degree, taught, became Director of Information for the University System, and drank coffee with John Locke. Early on I imagined him a highly refined coffee snob, though the swill from the giant vats in the student union got us through our many interludes. Memo to students: hope to learn much more outside the classroom than in, because that is where real life happens. Hope to learn from a teacher who cares.
On August 28th, 2000, one James Eason Kelly, who had been dropped from a Ph.D. program in the English Department at the U of AR because over too many years he couldn’t get the work done, walked into John Locke’s office, Room 231, Kimpel Hall, and shot him dead. That he then killed himself only complicates and compounds tragedy—it does nothing to further understanding. Not of reason, not of meaning, certainly not of graduate degrees and the spiritual terror they must stir in some sad, heavy hearts.
There is an element of magic, a near alchemy somehow, in having access to someone who understands abstract notions. John Locke turned casual conversations about arcane ideas and thinkers—Sartre, Plato, Russell, Rumi--into hour upon hour of research, more conversations, more coffee. Each revelation I presented led to more investigations. The quest to balance it all assumed a fractal quality. Each answer spawned new questions. Each new question raised the bar. The “university,” thereby defined, goes on, as does John Locke.
He would carry spiders outside and set them in the lawn. A large man, though no Friar Tuck, his laugh carried out his door, down the hall and out into the world. I believe that deep compassion and firm resolve form a character I wish more of us had. The quest to probe the depths our own sentience cannot end. And so I believe that John Locke achieved a Nirvana, though to have known him, however well, makes me see “Nirvana” as too thinly struck. John Locke went to all the heavens, and I hope that his model is in me.