Doxology: Brian Holers’s Debut Novel

Doxology, the debut novel from author Brian Holers, is available in both paperback and digital format now! Fathers, sons and brothers reconnect over tragedy in this blue-collar Southern tale of love, loss and the healing power of community and family. Doxology examines an impossibly difficult...

Brian Holers

Good old days

Sometimes I wonder if the college degree I sweated for and earned more than half my life ago has been of any value to me.  I’ve thought many times over the years I could do what I do with an eighth grade education, why did I bother to go to college, et cetera, et cetera.  I remember for the first five or ten years after college, I was always thinking about going back to get a graduate degree and make some sort of a professional of myself instead of a guy with a useless degree who climbs up in trees for a living like some kind of a monkey.  The words of my friend Norm, who has been my friend for a long time, he’s about to turn eighty, still echo in my head, he must have asked me until I was thirty five: “When you gonna get your tail back in school?”  Two different times in the twenty two years since I finished college, I have actually tried to get into graduate schools, once in my late twenties and then again recently I tried to get into a creative writing program; neither time worked out, so I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.  I guess I am meant to roam this earth with only a bachelor’s.

But a lot of us do that, second guess ourselves and wonder why things aren’t different.  Wonder why God put us here on this earth, what the point is.  This is a common theme with contemplative people.  Especially now, when so many of us face tough times with no end in sight, and we’re not as young as we used to be and maybe we’ve gotten accustomed to a certain lifestyle and it’s just easy to just look around and say, how did I let this happen to me? What was I thinking?  Not that I’m complaining­—I’m about the luckiest person I know.  It’s just a normal part of being an intelligent human to think we can do better.

For me there’s a little seed that keeps coming back, when I go through and count all the good things in my life and remind myself, for perhaps the ten thousandth time, that I wouldn’t have them if I had gone in other directions, that I’m grateful to have the life that I have.  Some little thing always comes up when I’m thinking and when I see it I can say, there, that’s the thing, that’s the thing I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t done the other thing.  That’s the little thing for which I am so grateful, that is such a part of me.

Fall 1985, Introduction to Philosophy.  I wouldn’t have studied it at all if I hadn’t gone to college, and then it wouldn’t be such a giant part of me.  What I got from college was a degree that didn’t really teach me how to do any particular thing, just how to think about things.  As contemplatives do today, early philosophers sought to create a “simplified and intelligible picture of the universe,” to borrow the words of Albert Einstein, as a means of making sense of everything that happened around them.   Thinkers before Socrates attempted to find what they called the arche, or universal element, a sort of lens through which all creation could be viewed.  The philosopher Heraclitus postulated that all experience is a function of change, that the earth and all its contents are in a constant state of flux, and that this pervasive, never slowing state of change is what defines all existence.  The example he used to illustrate his thesis has become a phrase sometimes heard in literature; the same river twice.  You can’t step in the same river twice.  When you step into a river and then step out, the water you enter a second time is not the same river you entered before.  It has flowed down the line.

Things always change.  When we compare our experiences as adults with the ones we had as children, it is so common for us to look back fondly on younger days.  It is also so easy for us as adults, and as parents, to look around at “kids these days” and think about how much easier they have it than we did, how they have everything handed to them, how all they want to do is play video games and watch TV and God forbid they’d have to put down the remote or the joystick and go outside and break a sweat or rake the leaves or sit looking out the window of the car at the scene passing by and let imagination run wild for a minute or two.  The same thing adults said about my generation when we were kids.  On the other hand, kids have a lot more pressure on them now than I ever did, with homework starting in kindergarten and the push to get into great colleges that seems to start with extracurricular projects in elementary school.  It just seems so common to look back on the days we were young and remember times were better, people were better, life was simpler.  More likely the truth is we were just too young or clueless or self involved to know what was really going on.  And as for thoughts about the general decline of things, people have been preaching the “irreversible moral decline” of America since Plymouth colony.  A really long time ago.

Watching my son play baseball the other day got me thinking.  Okay, so I live in the city now, a place altogether different from the small deep South town of my youth, but still.  I can’t help but make these comparisons.  The kids on the field are all between eight and ten.  The parents on both sides are polite without exception, and many opposing parents know one another and sit on bleachers on one side or another during the game to carry on conversations. But the thing that struck me was the way the coaches talked to the umpire.  At one point there was some sort of a disagreement over a call, and both coaches stood and listened politely as the boy explained what had happened in the play, and why he made the call he did.

I found this scene especially interesting because nearly thirty years ago I was that teenage kid, umping baseball games.  In my time I fielded more than a handful of disagreements from coaches over calls I had made, just never delivered so politely.  And even at fourteen and fifteen years old, listening to shouts and huffs of disappointment and name calling from parents and coaches as old as I am now, I remember thinking to myself, better toughen up.  This is what it’s like.

            I come from a place where behavior was not moderated by any desire to appear or to remain neutral.  Malcolm Gladwell, whom I have quoted before, writes a chapter in his fascinating book Outliers about this very phenomenon; how much of “Southern culture” revolves around ancestral, life-or-death need to ward off any threats, real or perceived.  In particular, he draws distinction between the Southern “every man for himself” culture and the cooperative, agriculture-based societies of the Midwest.  The Louisiana of my youth was a tough place.  It didn’t help that I was never much of a fighter—my people were Germans from Ohio, cooperative farmer types—and my general pacifism made it even harder to fit in.  But plain and simple, that was the deal.  In school, kids picked on kids and got in fights every day of the year.  Now my son can’t even go to school unless he signs a pledge at the beginning of every year in which he promises not to be a bully.  Don’t misunderstand me, nobody likes or ever did like a bully.  But my teacher in fourth grade taught us (this was a lady, mind you) that if there’s a problem with another kid, the only way to solve it is to hit back as hard as you can.  That when things got to that point, the talking was over.  Imagine teachers telling kids that today.

So eventually my son’s coach and the other coach walked away satisfied enough with the explanation, the umpire put his mask back on and the game resumed and continued without incident.  But I remember games as a child, both mine and my younger brother’s, as little more than affairs in wildness.  Half the parents smoking cigarettes and yelling at their kids, the other kids, at the umpires, all the players on the field praying for a win so Coach would pile all fifteen of them in the back of his pickup and take them to the Dairy Queen in celebration.  I remember one game when a parent asked my coach why his son wasn’t getting his fair share of playing time, and without another word the two of them were walking into the shadows together, taking off their jackets (it must have been an early spring game if they were wearing jackets.)  Once another coach, who led my teams for years and was the nicest, most mild mannered man you’d ever care to meet, took off his glasses and offered them to the kid umping our game and told the young man he obviously had trouble with his eyesight if that was his call. Once a ten year old player informed me after a game that his coach said not only was I a terrible umpire, I was the ugliest white boy he’d ever seen (even as a self conscious teen I thought that was a riotously funny, ironic statement.) On another occasion I can still picture Mr. Carson at my brother’s game, all five foot two of him, pacing up and down behind the fence biting his nails during a 2-2 tie.  He pronounced several times “if these boys don’t score soon I’m fixin’ to start smoking again.”  Finally he had his chance to go nuts when his own son, in the bottom of the last, hit a little nubber halfway to the pitcher’s mound, took second on the overthrow to first, took third on the overthrow to second, and scored standing up on the overthrow to third.  The whole fifteen seconds it took the short little kid to circle the bases Mr. Carson was screaming for all he was worth, biting his nails, and jumping up and down squeezing his head between both hands with a look on his face that said this is the best thing that has ever happened to me. 

            But sometimes I worry about my son growing up in what feels, in a way, like a sanitized world.  Not that planet earth isn’t still a crazy, violent and dangerous place.  It just seems like life for him, and for “kids these days”, is softer, less controversial, less exciting than, say, the colorful world of Louisiana in the 1970s.  And I wonder what he’ll have to remember.  But of course life is exciting and filled with things that are interesting to him.  Any way you shake it out, these will be his good old days, and no doubt he will remember them as fondly as I remember mine.  As Einstein said, we are programmed to make sense of the world around us, to create a simplified and intelligible picture of things.  And we create this world with stories.

The other fact is that you can’t go back.  Even if you never leave home, adult life and youth are simply not the same, and the world I view through the lens of adulthood is not the world a child sees.  Nor should it be.  So, let the stories begin.  Or continue, as it were.  I am confident that my son, even though he doesn’t live in a wild, segregated place where kids fight each other for little more than entertainment, I am confident he will remember his youth in stories the same way I remember mine.  That’s the way we’re programmed.  And on top of that, without a doubt, when he is grown, lots of things will be different.

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