Monday, August 08, 2016

The Indeterminates

First a deep breath. Spade and clippers in hand. Where to start? This garden is overgrown. Away for just a week and look what happens! Barely passable are the brick paths. Their underlying layers of weedblock are breeched. Warning to those who want to “build a wall” to keep undesirables out, dandelions without passports invade on parachutes and root in tiny fissures between bricks. Neatly pruned tomatoes that had sworn to be bound to the discipline of their stakes are thrashing about like bewitched wild things, and their shoots detain me as I walk by.

Is overgrowth a decline in the arc of life or just the lush fulfillment of youth? Is it the glorious spurt before the going to seed? I ask only because not-so-little Nick is also now overgrown. He has been set upon by hormones, and what had been a perfectly compact boy is now the somewhat mystified and confused owner of a body stretching and fomenting. He came into the garden to see what I was doing.

“I’m bringing this wild place under control is what I am doing, Nick. Look at how we can barely walk the paths without having our ankles strangled by the rampaging nasturtium. And that Clary sage with its purple spikes loaded with bees is like a raft bound for political asylum. Or like a roadblock in Kabul.  And the encroaching portulaca clumps need a good haircut, don’t they!  And look at that caryopteris. Trying to walk around that thing could cause scoliosis. What is that on your arm?”

“I broke it. I was on my bike and I crashed. You have to sign it.”

His cast was wrapped in bright red medical adhesive. (In my day, a cast was white plaster and the tape was fleshtone.) As he handed me a Sharpie, he explained that he had flown over the handlebars and walked home with his forearm at an odd angle. Most vexing for him is the doctor’s order that he not go swimming for six weeks. He’ll probably always remember this as the summer when he couldn’t swim or do fun stuff.

“Well I suppose this gets you out of that summer school thing your grandfather arranged for you?”

“No,” he said with some irritation. His grandfather, a chef, had paid for him to go to a cooking school, with an eye to passing down to Nick his profession. Nick wasn’t having it. ‘They said that even if I can’t chop stuff, I can still do everything else.”

I tried to imagine carving a radish into a swan using only my left hand and a ginzu knife.

We never do what our fathers or grandfathers want us to do, do we? My father wanted me to be happy under the hood of a sports car. He brought home wonderful cars for me, including a Triumph Herald. None of them ran, and I was not going to learn how to make them run. Although Nick would have empathized, I kept this business to myself.

Instead, I said, “When I grew up in this neighborhood, we didn’t have a community swimming pool. We made do with a brackish pond on the other side of town. Rather than swim, I played ball. Everyday, I dragged my bat and glove down to the playground where I always got picked last and played right field where nothing ever happened. It was actually very meditative.”

It’s funny how clearly I remember it. Standing alone in deep right field with my Don Drysdale glove hanging limp by my side. The smell of the grass. The smell of the glove. A garden snake with an errand passes my shoes with no curiosity. The voices of all the other boys would become so far away, and in my head I was very very far away. I was in Hollywood. Fabian himself had come from California. He was telling me to get in his car, and he was taking me straight to Hollywood. I knew that Hollywood was where I would grow into whatever it was I was meant to be. In Hollywood, no one had to fix a car. That is about as far as my daydream would go. I’d play it over and over again until I’d drag my bat and ball home for lunch. I wasn’t happy.

“Nick, I hated baseball. I only did it because that’s all we had. Except for Wednesday afternoons at 1:30 when we had Arts-and-Crafts. I made ashtrays or eagles out of plaster-of-Paris – which, incidentally is what a cast for a broken limb was made of in my day, with a dish towel for a sling.”

“So what you’re saying is you were a weird kid.”

“Yes. I wasn’t happy being weird then, but I am now. Just like you are not happy about your summer school or your arm or much anything these days, but someday, if you’re lucky, you will be happy and you’ll cherish all those things that will have gotten you there. The question is, what’s it going to be with you? Will you become a chef like your grandfather?”


“Don’t say no. Say ‘Who knows?’ because you don’t know.”

It used to be so much easier to pontificate like this when Nick was shorter than me. Also, I am hardly one to talk to this kid about planning one’s future. I have never planned a single thing that has happened to me. When I was exactly his age, I had a best friend, Jay McGowan. We were outcasts, two matching loners. On a good day at recess, we played double-dutch with the black girls. One day, Jay announced that he was going to visit the seminary because they were having an open house, and did I want to come. I did not know what a seminary was, but of course I agreed. We both came from pious Catholic families but my parents would never have dreamed that their kid would consider the priesthood. Jay’s parents, however, were the kind of first-generation Irish American Catholics who wanted to offer their firstborn son to the Church.

I fell in love with the seminary the instant I saw it. Silvery granite Gothic with a tower that could be seen for miles.  It was like Downton Abbey for the Holy Family. Every seminarian had his own room! (At home, I shared a bedroom with my brother.) They put on a musical show for us, and said that they put on plays and concerts and variety shows all year long. A very handsome seminarian played the guitar and sang a Harry Belafonte tune, “Oh I’m sad to say, I’m on my way, I won’t be back for many a day, my heart is heavy and my head is down, I had to leave a little girl in Kingston town.” Okay, I thought, he's trying to let us know via a song lyric that we will have to give up girls if we enter the seminary. No problem. And from what I could see as I watched the seminarians charged with charming us, it wasn't a problem for any of them. I was a fourteen year-old cherub who knew the score. Jesus take the wheel, and no girls in the back seat! 

I scanned the many acres of the lush green campus. I saw playing fields, tennis courts and a gymnasium in the distance but no one said anything about baseball! It wasn’t required! It wasn't even encouraged! I knew in my heart this wouldn't be Hollywood, but it would be an easy slide into second base until I could steal home.

Before saying goodbye, they brought forth a gigantic round silver tray supporting a mountain of Oreo cookies. Have all you want, they said! This sealed the deal for me.

How could I have never heard of this place, I thought!

That evening, still humming “I’m sad to say I’m on my way,” at dinner, I announced to my parents that I was going into the seminary. I don’t think I was fully aware that this meant I intended to become a priest, but that is certainly how my parents read it. My mother cried with joy. My father frowned at his plate, confused but compliant. A few months later, I left home, and that December, my parents came to the seminary for the annual Christmas concert and heard their son do a solo, Maria’s introduction to “Do Re Mi” from the Sound of Music.  "Let's start at the very beginning," I sang out to a full house. When my choirboy soprano voice ran up that scale and walloped that top note, the auditorium burst into applause, and the bishop beamed at me from his front row seat. I thought, “So this is what it means to have a priestly vocation, to be the youngest of 650 men ages 14-24, all pressed together spiritually in an all-male community forbidden to venture beyond the property edges.” That year, I had my first cigarette, my first drink, and in the library I looked up the word homosexual. I eventually quit smoking….

Nick followed me about sullenly while I yanked out encroaching clumps of armeria, and drifts of creeping phlox. As always, he had come into the garden because I talk to him as if he were an adult. No one else does that. Today, I had not yet told him anything helpful or even odd enough to take home and think about before falling asleep.

“Nick, see that tomato plant? That one is named Roma. It gets to a certain height and it stops growing. It flowers all at once and it makes all of its tomatoes at once. That kind of tomato is called ‘determinate.” See this one here? This is a SuperSweet 100. This one will keep on growing and flowering and making tomatoes until the first strong frost in autumn kills it. That kind is called ‘indeterminate.’  The determinates seem to have a specific plan. They follow their plan, and that is it with them. Very predictable. The indeterminates however run like crazy until they just can’t run any more because the world turns cold. People are the same way. Some are like the Roma. They do what they're told. They have a plan and they follow it. They are the kind that read the IKEA manual before they assemble the furniture. I guess it makes them happy. I don’t know. I was never a determinate. Then there are people like me, like the indeterminate Supersweets. So full of desire to see and do everything that the only thing that can stop us is death itself, but until that happens we want to go everywhere and see everything and taste everything. We never get enough. We want more Oreos!”

“Hunh? Oreos?”

I had forgotten that my reminiscence about my introduction to the seminary had happened silently inside my head.

“Here’s the thing. I think you may be either a lazy indeterminate or a discontent determinate. The jury is out on you, Nick, but whatever you turn out to be, don’t be afraid of anything.”

“I’m not afraid of anything.”

"Well good. That’s half the battle. Now go home and make a list of ten things you might like to be in this world. And no, Jackie Chan [Nick’s current hero] is not allowed on that list. I also don’t want to see ‘astronaut’ on that list. Okay?”


“And give your mother these hot peppers. Or cook them yourself, Mr. Summer School chef.”


I watch him leave the garden, slower than when he was younger and used to jump about like a squirrel. Soon he will be so engulfed with adolescence that he won’t have the inclination to visit. His time in my garden will become something he will think of ruefully among all the goods of childhood that we give away. I will become uncool. Maybe even “strange” or “weird” in his new cosmology. Years may pass before he will like me anew. I hope the world he is entering will be kind to him. I hope he will be lucky, as was I. I am suddenly Professor Marvel wondering if Dorothy will make it home okay.

Turning back to the task of ordering my own raging universe, where overgrowth cannot be stopped, the song that took me away from my childhood repeats itself in my head.

“I’m sad to say, he’s on his way.
He won’t be back for many a day.”