John in the Classroom
Photograph by Beau Bosko

Letters from Cricket Song

Missive the Fourteenth

Language and Reality Is
Light Weeks from Here Now.

It May Be that the Answer Will Not Come to Us Today.

DATELINE: Saturday, September 2, 2000, at 05:30 hours CDT.
Conway, Arkansas, USA

By D. Ebenezer Baldwin Bowles
CornDancer & Company

It has got to be maddening to be murdered, to know in the fast fleeting now that the bullets are flying at you and into you, to struggle toward your slayer, to fall in a screaming air of violence onto the floor of your last breath.

When he fell, I don't think John fell at the feet of the killer. I think that John, resolving the last powerful gasp of his chi into a lunge, took the gunman down to the floor with him. I think John died triumphant, face-to-face with the coward who shot him dead.

I'll suppose these details about the event because I need to suppose them. Five days into my meditation about the homicide, I continue to think about how John let it happen. In the space of blindness behind the space of mirage, the inexperienced experience of dying became John's experienced experience in a most dramatic way.

"You have become your own black magician," he said. "You are wanting to hold-on to a world created for me by billions and billions of unconscious people who have come before you. You want to protect that world because it's comfortable for you."

That was spoken in the early autumn of 1975. The man doing the speaking was my teacher. His name was John R. Locke. He taught well.

I Am Just Reporting on Experience.
On Monday, August 28, 2000, just after noon in his office at University, John at age sixty-seven was murdered by another of life's miserable lone gunmen. His death moved me beyond easy measure, not only because I knew John, but also because my Number One Son had taken his first freshman class in that same building just a few hours before the homicide.

My son's E-mail, subject "I'm OK," arrived on my Windows desktop a few minutes after two p.m. It was news to me. "Hey Dad, I'm just E-mailing you in case you heard about the murder/suicide at Kimpel Hall. Apparently some student went into a teacher's office and killed the teacher and then himself. I'm OK. Call me at my dorm room." I appreciated the way he worded it: "... in case you heard...." It was best to hear it first from my boy.

A reporter for the television news, live by satellite, told me at six o'clock the name of the teacher.

"We think that worry is a word. Worry is a human experience. I am just reporting on experience," John said on August 27, 1975. "It may be possible for you to create a worry you cannot experience, an anxiety you can't feel. There's not a person in this room who has not been scared out of his goddamned mind."

I'm glad I found the notebook. I searched for hours through boxes, file cabinets, shelves, and drawers here at Cricket Song. What a pity, I thought, to keep it for twenty-five years, then not be able to find the notebook on the one occasion I needed to reference it. Late Thursday night I found it in a plastic tub in the dark, hot attic. I'll credit my true love and mate, mistress of our hearth, for knowing the best probabilities for success. She knows the nooks, knows the crannies. She pointed the way for me, so that I might escape the desperation of a failed search.

The Cracking of Certain Illusions.
"The words just don't matter to me," John said to about twenty of us who had signed-on for a mysterious new class he named Language and Reality. Our thrice-weekly time together quickly became a wilding ride of agitated debate, perilous challenges to cherished precepts, and the cracking of certain illusions. It was exhilarating education of a most unusual kind. I thought so, anyway. The New Age and the popular philosophy it engendered were as new to me as the war had been, as my unraveled marriage was, as everything seemed to be in the devilwood of my maturation. "We cannot know physical reality," John continued. "We can know a chosen reality or a chosen mirage. You choose to see it, you take it for granted on the word of another, even though we really don't know why.

"Just don't believe anything I ever say because I don't."

In longhand on the "Cause of Death" form, Arkansas State Crime Laboratory, Case Number 733-00, dated August 30, 2000, Stephen A. Erickson M.D. wrote about John: "3 gunshot wounds -- none show evidence of close range of fire. 1 to left chin/jaw, 1 to chest through heart, 1 to right index finger into wrist. all bullets recovered."

A part of John saw it coming, something foreboding on the horizon. He told colleagues about his concerns, how he thought it might be better to meet the failed, thirty-seven-year-old student in a conference room in the presence of others. The nobler part of John, his valor and sense of responsibility, led him to drop his guard and invite the murderer into his office, to close the door behind them.

Smoking and Cussin' in the Classroom.
"Our problem is that we have too many words that don't mean a goddamn thing," he said. Yes, you read it right: In a season that is become old to me, a time long gone ago, we did curse and shout, toss things against the wall, smoke Camels and Marlboros and Virginia Slims in the classroom. Some of us held tightly to a lingering radicalism, one inspired by the recently ended war and fading fast. "Eighty percent of the words that you use are bullshit; they don't exist in the universe. We want to be able to walk across the nonexistent bridge. Wherever there is agreement there is a kind of reality. Spending an hour getting rid of words is more exhilarating than spending an hour learning words. It's the spaces, not the words, that mean."

The police speculated that John struggled with his assailant, whose .38-caliber pistol was just too much for the Tai Chi master's best defense. In his office a chair was overturned. The murderer had a man-inflicted wound on one of his arms. I think John followed the one course of action that offered a chance of survival, however slim: attack the sonofabitch. Someone pulls a pistol on you at very close range and you suddenly know he means it, you realize he's out to shoot at you, then the odds are short you're soon to be dead or dying. You just gotta move on 'em, hope against hope, hurl your unarmed courage against their cowardly advantage. I can tell you without pity that John was a warrior and died as one.

"Power is measured by what you can do, by what you're doing, the number of alternatives that you understand," John said. "The ultimate proof of reality is agreement. The best you can do is expand your spaces of agreement.

"Anything you think of, you can learn. Don't put energy into what you think you can't do. If we become abstract, we can't handle it. Look at the words, and then try to find the word to describe it. The words will tell us what is going on. The function of language is to share."

The Use of Is-Ness Is a Fruitless Search.
I remember a Wednesday in October which stretched into a Friday in November, an indeterminate time, a seamless class when John was more animated than usual, which meant he had to be on fire, it came to his body from the furnace at the center of the earth, and he was chunking words with chalk onto the green slate, barking out words with a boom and vigor, building from one crescendo to another. "No one is anything. The use of is-ness is a fruitless search. Look at what a person is doing, is doing, is doing. What are they doing now? The problem is that the present tense, to be, leads to a double ignorance. What am I? No! What am I doing? Yes!"

A minute or five, six passed. Challenges were exchanged. Women crossed their legs, bounced one atop the other. Two men twirled their moustaches.

"The English language does not fit the world," John said as if he might be accusing us of heresy for speaking it. "There's nothing magic about words. They could be a path to the fire at the center of the universe. They could be a path to knowledge. There is a path through the mirage. Something in the world, either real or a mirage, strives to block it. Experience is the experience; the conclusion is the knowledge."

Don't Define Me and Surely Don't Defy Me.
A student, the champion of academic philosophy, a graduate philosopher with pus-filled pimples on his cheeks and blue-suede earth shoes on his feet, put some of his fingers over his mouth when he spoke, but we could understand him. He didn't like it when John said, "The English language does not exist. It is phony. It does not exist. I am unable to find an English language. Where is it? Where is it? Where is it? You can't find it, either." I was about to say that I had looked for it, too, and hadn't found it, either, not even under very old rocks, but the philosopher spoke first, and loudly:

"You're just merely refusing to define the common language that people are speaking as English. I still don't understand what you're trying to say."

"Come at me some more," John urges. The philosopher, quieter and slower to speak now, comes after him.

"Language is a necessary requirement," little Spinoza says. "You're trying to define me out of existence."

"Oh, no. I'm not defining, I'm defying."

"Ah," the philosopher says. "You can't! You can't defy what you cannot know. There can be no thought without language."

John says, "Gotcha! You see it for what it is, a bunch of bullshit!"

A woman with a frizzy blonde afro, quite comely, raised straight up in her chair and shocked us all: "How about this bullshit. My vagina stinks!," she shouted. "Here. Smell my finger. My vagina stinks!" She was smiling, raising her hand.

"You are both the manipulator and the manipulated," John said.

"You're lucky you didn't get stuck with a womb," she said.

He Sat on the Desk in a Kind of Mantra Pose.
A murmur swept o'er the room and we were beginning to babble, separately in clusters, about consciousness and the tenses of verbs. John moved to his desk, it seemed like he was driving us like steers, he was sitting in a kind of mantra pose, swamilike on the desk top. He snapped his fingers, swirled his arms in a circle. "You are right!" he said. "There are varieties of experience."

A delicate boy with a hat on his head mumbled something, and John points at him: "That's exactly the point!" Three young women smoked their cigarettes, and most of the men were staring forward with manly intensity, and John says, "It's all together." I think of alternatives, feel the underside of my legs press against the surface of the plastic chair, agree that there is more than language, there is a perfect knowledge, such as it is.

I try to blow out the cigarette held by the sweet smelling female in front of me. Did John expect? Did John seek out the fire? Did he blow the swirling smoke? The philosopher said: "I guess I'm confused." He sought to paraphrase, to formulize. My hands were sweating. I expected nothing but the next chirping word.

John leaped off his desk, moved to a wall, leaned on the concrete blocks, bobbed his head back and forth against the yellow-painted surface like he was banging his head, softly. He yells, very loudly: "That's the whole point!" Then he pounds upon the chalk. "Anything you do is fine with me!"

"Oh, no, my man," a thin rake known to be an actor, a loud one with wiry black hair and buttons on his boots, shouts, leaping to his feet. "I kill you and that is not so fine." He stomped out of the classroom.

Stars Come from the Ceiling Lights.
John shakes his head and wiggles his lips. Blood in the million veins, wrapped in lithe bodies in the room, flows hot and swiftly, silent to all but the bearer. One of John's fingers dances up and down, his eyes roll into ceiling lights and then -- pow -- he talks of stars! The stars come from the ceiling lights and the world is alone in this room, the world is us, here now. There is no other world here now! This is my only world here now. We are all legitimate whitely. It's just something we do.

There is a man wearing a number, No. 43, in white upon blue. A book is in his hand. He wants to talk about power, but the witchy woman with thick black hair, almost cobalt blue, the most beautiful woman any of us can see in the thickening, fluorescent, greenish haze, speaks more clearly than the others: "Power: It is a potentially dangerous thing. I want to advise people: Be careful with it. I want you all to realize that like me, roses and plants flinch with fear. Who is superior?"

Linda, the one who told us about her vagina, asked no one in particular a question about the angry thespian: "Why did he do that? Why did he talk about killing someone, then storm out of the room?"

Gerard: "Because he's stupid."

John, perhaps eager to change direction, said: "All of us are the old men. We are all allowed to coin terms."

Gerard: "All you're doing is throwing words at words."

John: "I'm just sharing with you my experience. I'm a stupid fool every now and then, too. The creator leads to the manipulator, who leads to the destroyer. The destroyer is not selective, and I am not bound to be consistent."

'I'm All Tangled Up in this Moment.'
A delicate lad with soft blonde hair and thin lips, stylish in his white shirt, said: "I'm all tangled up in this moment and can't extract myself. It's like I'm caught in a thousand-page book and can't find my way to the end."

John said something about behavior, the measurable and physical aspect of emotion, the proper way to translate I can't, and then it was winter. Language and Reality ended.

"Always some things will change," John said. "The experience of observation is change. Things seem to change in a rather repetitious way. The problems we have from our solutions are beyond our ability to solve.... Look at the always, look at the have to. Be prepared for everything and anticipate nothing."

I just wish John could have deflected the pistol. I wish he could have activated his chi a second or two sooner and found the energy to sneak past the bullets. I wish the first bullet would have jammed in the chamber. I wish the loser who shot John would have never been born.

"Are you beginning to believe that you are living in a world where the people are insane?" John said on Friday, September 5, twenty-five years ago. "People put you in a category they create. They define you. You kill yourself by avoiding death."

"Does a mantra have to be a meaningless sound?" someone asked.

"Probably," John answered. "Working with a mantra is finding a means to stop the world. In order that we may put our attention onto what is essentially nothing, we do these mantras. It is a state of stopping the world."

He paused. John did. He paused for effect, to ask us to listen. We were trying to stop our chattering minds when our teacher said, "It may be that the answer is not going to come to us today," and I choose to think that stars exist, undiscovered ones among the multitudes of the seen. I am tempted to travel there, light weeks from this now, to such stars, so that I may discover one, but these dreams shall shimmer in the cold coffee.

John and a Student
Photograph by Beau Bosko

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