What we saw of Regina from Chicago Theater’s ‘cheap seats’

Cheap seats or not,  what a soul-wrenching show I would like to rewind over and over.

I was an hour early in picking up Alexa, a big deal because I’m always bumbling into her life at least 10 minutes late. We petted her dog Bubba and had a drink with her boyfriend and his dad. They sat on benches on the porch, and I stood and paced until the beer kicked in. We talked about photography, social media uh-ohs, bumblebees, bee stings, and the shifty neighbors across the street. Alexa wore a choker and a long double necklace. She had a single braid in her hair. I was sporting a long skirt with suns and moons, sandals, and a jean jacket. We looked mighty fine this Friday evening. The boys, who were buzzing and enjoying the warm weather, asked if we were excited for our concert, and we shrugged.

It was bumper to bumper traffic to the city like always; good thing we had the extra time, I kept gloating to Alexa. We listened to a few Regina Spektor songs along the way as well as this one by Lorde that reminds me of our friendship. I couldn’t find the song with the one line about friends sleeping in the same bed, which reminds me of when Alexa and I had sleepovers on Friday nights at her house. I joked, “We weren’t kids; we were kind of young adults in college,” to which she said “Yeah, but we were making up for lost time.”

Sometimes I feel like I have to hide my unfiltered, gushing affection for Alexa. First, it tends to put her on the spot. It’s like I’m constantly pointing out that she has whiskers or elephant tusks on her face, and they’re indeed beautiful. That and it oftentimes comes off as alienating to others on the outside. But it’s a wee bit hard not to share this particular kind of love. The older people get, the less time we have for others, and the more scratchy layers we throw on, which can get in the way of enjoying a person. With us, we’ve been throwing off layers left and right. We could walk around in winter in tank tops if we had to. Our friendship has muddled past the deepest defenses and insecurities. I’m beyond blessed for this rarity, and I hope that others can find and work on a relationship like this because it looks good on everyone.

As we continued to inch forward in traffic, Alexa shared with me some of her comments on some writing I asked her to take a look at. She ran out of printer paper, so she printed out my story and poem on fancy stationary. The paper was thick and worn-looking and depicted a turtle wading in water between some reeds. She read her comments aloud. I was grateful for the suggestions she had for this story I’ve been sweating over. She wanted a little more reflection on the narrator’s walk home and thought I should add more detail about a particular prop by reusing it in another spot. It was a pretty thoughtful comment. She gets darn comfortable in a scene. A fellow writer and one of the best readers I know.

She had to pee and apologized about her bladder profusely, and I pounced on the first exit off the expressway. I told her to stop apologizing for something her body couldn’t control. We both apologize a lot for lame things. It was Alexa’s turn this week.

We parked in a garage on Kedzie. Only 12 dollars for the night (what a freaking snag). We walked the few blocks to the theater, using our phones’ GPS because we are two dopey deer that wandered a little too far from the suburbs.

Alexa and I joined the line wrapped around state street. It was a diverse crowd, and there were a lot more dudes than we both imagined. Everyone looked squeaky clean and dressed for the occasion. Two older women stood in front of us. They both wore comfortable shoes, short haircuts, and small silver hoops. They giggled and talked into each other’s shoulders. The woman directly in front of me had drooping blue eyes that hung onto every word coming out from the woman standing in front of Alexa. I was projecting when I said, “That’s us in the future,” but I didn’t care.

A man in a tattered flannel asked Alexa if she had any money to spare, and she rifled into her purse for a dollar to give to him. She said, “Who cares what he spends it on,” as if openly confronted.

It was colder than it was earlier, and I shivered in my jean jacket. A man carrying takeout and walking in the opposite direction of the line stopped next to me on the sidewalk. He asked me, “Excuse me, Miss, but do fries go with that shake?” I looked at the man closer, incredulously. He casually waited while I came up with an answer. I think I was most offended  about the polite commonplaceness of the comment. I mean if you’re going to harass someone, at least have some goddamn originality. I awkwardly pointed to the burger joint right behind the man, and said I bet they had some good shakes in there if he needed one. Alexa had a different take, probably the more accurate one. She said, “Excuse me, but you can’t talk to her like that.” After he scurried away, she told me I had to be more assertive, and I felt like I had failed her and all of womanhood. But if the shoe were on my foot, I would have bitched out the man as well, so I knew where she was coming from.

Finally it was time for Regina. Alexa and I found our seats in the balcony. On the stage was a single light resting on a glossy piano. We snapped photos and double fisted our drinks. One beer and a cocktail. Not the best idea for a show without an intermission. Alexa and I swapped drinks because her Jack and Coke was a little too strong. I couldn’t even taste the Jack, and insisted she take my margarita.

Regina took the stage, and Alexa and I perked up in our seats. From where we sat, she looked like a tiny mime in her lacy black top, black flats, and black skinny jeans with holes exposing her knees. Undone wavy hair sat along her neckline. Her black clothes blended into the black stage, but her small, white face glowed under all the lights. She introduced herself to Chicago in a mousey voice then got comfortable in a large leather chair at the piano. What came soaring out of the piano and her mouth was the opposite of the initial perceived smallness.

Regina started off a little rushed. Her first two songs were effortless, but some of their usual longer notes blended together. By the third song though, she sank her hands into the bellowing elongated notes. Her voice clung to the rollercoaster chords. She has a signature playfulness that feels like you’re watching someone walk across a tightrope or you’re on a beach batting around an inflatable ball. I felt like a ball bouncing around in my seat between Alexa and this other woman. At one point, I told this woman that the current performance was “my version of football,” and she laughed.

Then Regina played some of her more moving, stomach-churners. She sang an entire power ballad in Russian, which she dedicated to an elderly friend of hers who used to visit her backstage every time she came to Chicago. This friend recently passed away. Regina is an artist who is completely engrained in her homeland. You feel her ebbing and longing when she speaks in her native language. I felt myself leaning into an understanding without a translation that Regina herself said we could “Google” if wanted. No translation necessary for me, thanks. I believe you.

She also sang Après Moi, which is in English and Russian. And it’s one of my favorites. I like militancy of the song and the way she seems to toggle back and forth between voices. It’s as if there are two people singing in this song, answering each other, building each other up. “I must go on standing,” is a takeaway line of this song, and you feel the full force of it.

Regina also said a few things that really stuck with me, as I’m sure others. Two of my favorite lines were: “This theater is so fancy. I feel like I want to swear in it … Fuck fuck fucking fuck.” And then there was the speech she made right before her more politically charged songs. She discussed what it was like to come to America as a refugee and her beginning journey as “a hungry, dirty artist sleeping on people’s couches.” She mourned our current political situation, but ended hopefully by saying, “Here’s to better days and better people to represent us.” Her song “Trapper and the Furrier” was menacing and relevant. Regina hunched over the piano all creature-like and banged on the keys, “What a strange world we live in,” she said. “Those who don’t have lose, those who got get given more, more, more, more.” MORE was the emphasis here. “More” was the word that hit the listener in the stomach like a dead-on punch. Perfect targeting.

A drummer and cellist also played on stage. They were equally moving, graceful, and effective, but complemented Regina in a way that reminded everyone that she is an ethereal one woman circus.

Regina kept giving, and the crowd extended its arms and ate her up, as they tend to do in the face of pure musical love and talent. Some people screamed, “We love you,” and she acknowledged each and every clear interruption. I payed attention to Alexa’s reactions. She wiped a tear away during the deeply sorrowful song “Blue Lips,” which explains that “blue is the most human color.” I choked back tears during two of her new babies, “Bleeding Heart” and “Tornadoland.” Lately, I have felt myself in a whirlwind of internal criticism and rejection. My thoughts have been racing so much faster than my words, and I feel like a slave trying to keep up. Excuse my analogy, but sometimes it feels like artistic constipation. So much force, with so little output. All anyone wants to be is heard in the form they’re most comfortable with. Regina established this with eloquence.

“Bleeding Heart” was a saving song, a reminder to be yourself. The light show soared around the crowd, singling people out. Lights moved around in tune with the song and landed on individuals who laughed and blushed at the song’s important reminder.

She was so damn charming. At one point, she forgot the words to one of her songs, and someone had to shout them to her. She stood up a few times and swayed like her body was a Styrofoam noodle. Alexa appreciated that she was an “awkward mover,” and I agreed.

The encore was long, but her show was far from over. We clapped until our hands stung. Finally, she skipped back onto stage. She sang four more songs after the encore. Her voice hit her self-made spectrum of light, torpedoing notes and heavy, low, bellowing notes. At some points, I just couldn’t believe her humanity, and at others, I felt like she knew me on a soul to soul basis.

When Regina said, “I really do believe in friendship, love, and art…” I looked at Alexa and said, “Huh. So do we.”

Spike, the badass flower

Titan Arum

He has name. His name is Spike. I saw him with my own two eyes, and he is a massive, glorious beast. Spike is the name of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s goliath “corpse flower,” or the Titan Arum. It took 12 years for this flower, which is actually a collection of flowers, to reach the height 68’’. Let me just say, it’s simply humbling when you realize that one of those dainty flower things can be taller, wider, heavier — not to mention smarter — than a human being.

One Friday, my sister, friend, and I stumbled upon the idea of going to the Chicago Botanic Garden. We weren’t even aware of the hype, or Godzilla-like specimen that awaited us. Once we arrived, it was clear though, the people had come for Spike. His ribbed, purple face was plastered all over the gift shop. He was on shirts and bags. On cooking aprons and postcards. He was the star of the show. Little kids were tugging on sleeves and whining, “Mom, I want to smell the stink.”

What stink? We wanted to smell the stink, too.

Then, there he was. In the center of the Semitropical Greenhouse, reaching toward the glassed in heavens. People were crowding around him, snapping selfies with the monster.

My sister, friend, and I stood with our mouths agape, taking in the near six foot “corpse flower.” The Titan Arum, native to Indonesia, has a rotting flesh smell that attracts pollinators. And not cute little bees, butterflies, or hummingbirds. No, this flower with its nightmare bloom has its heart set on dung beetles and flies. The tall center part of the bloom, the spadix, heats up to help disperse the odor far distances. The spadix heats up to 98F, the same temperature as the human body. Since the flower’s natural habitat is the rainforest, the greenhouse had to be kept to humid temperatures of 75 to 90 percent saturation at all times.

The time of our visit was important. The flower was set to bloom any night (it blooms at night), possibly the evening of our visit. Once we got our fill, we wandered over to the other botanic displays, all lovely and presentable in their own right. But our thoughts lingered on Spike. We stayed until closing. Though the rest of the grounds were hard for us to scope out, the lights were still on Spike when we returned. We took one last whiff and crept to my car in the darkness.

Over the next week, my sister alerted me that there was a Kardashian-like cam on Spike at all times. “Still hasn’t bloomed,” my sister informed me at the end of each day. Then on August 24, Spike stopped working overtime.

When the botanists were asked why the flower did not bloom, they responded, “We’re not entirely sure. In nature, plants have the choice of reproducing or surviving. Spike ‘chose’ to survive, having run out of energy to complete reproduction.”

The botanists talk about plants as if they have actual “choices” to make, and this by far sticks with me beyond anything. Maybe there’s something inside me that is still cheering Spike on; that is grateful Spike ‘chose’ to save his energy for himself rather than relinquish his true power in front of the cameras and hungry people eager to see him perform — to emit a smell so foul that eyes would water, grandmothers would dry heave. “Summon the flies!” we all cheered.

“Nah,” said Spike, and then he fucking quit.

When botanists learned that Spike would not bloom, they opened him up. They tried their best to harvest the pollen, or perform in front of viewers “the delicate procedure of removing the spathe by cutting around the base of the flower just above where it attaches to the stalk of the plant.” (This sounds to me like performing an autopsy on the still living, but what do I know? Apparently, there is a slight risk to the procedure, but it’s not entirely harmful to the plant.)

Gardens typically divvy up pollen so that other plants may thrive. It turns out Spike had very little pollen to offer. And his female flowers weren’t ready to receive pollen. And guess what: there was no rotting meat smell. Instead, a “slight smell” only if you held it up very close to your nose.

The Botanic Garden was simply floored that people, 75,000 to be exact, would come from miles around just to see Spike bloom in person and from their computers and phones. My sister and I were among the many texting each other updates on the flower’s progress. Spike is a natural born conversation starter.

Spike would have been the first Titan Arum to bloom in Chicagoland, but he didn’t. And it’s a crying shame because he raked in a lot of attention. Can you see where this is going?

The garden has seven other flowers just like Spike. “Spike, who?” read the Chicago Tribune headline on September 29. Now, in comes Alice, who debuts today at 7 p.m. The extremely rare sibling of Spike is now powdering up and getting ready for her big show.

These flowers are entirely unpredictable. In nature they only flower once in 1000 days, and the bloom only lasts for three days. Very few people have ever seen them flower. There is fairly little research on them though they were officially discovered in 1878 by the Italian natural scientist Odoardo Beccari. I think one was featured in a Simpson’s episode.

Spike in the meantime, lies dormant in a freezer, ready to bloom another day (or not). To which I say, that’s okay Spike, you do what you gotta do.

Sources:

chicagobotanic.org/titan/spike_titan_arum

bioscigreenhouse.osu.edu/titan-arum-faqs

nbcchicago.com/news/local/Why-Chicago-Botanic-Gardens-Corpse-Flower-Didnt-Bloom-323375051.html

chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/home/ct-titan-arum-corpse-flower-blooming-botanic-garden-20150929-story.html

bbc.co.uk/nature/life/Titan_arum#p004gx80

How to be good at hipster karaoke – A paradox made simple

You have to have a signature something: a little leather backpack, a thrifty cheetah print jacket, a shirt with Marilyn Monroe wearing a Blackhawks jersey. If you’re simply wearing jeans and a plain black t-shirt, don’t panic; it’s okay, I can help you. Stop what you’re doing, and immediately go to the bathroom. Tear a hole into your shirt so your bra is showing. Men– turn your pants inside out and put them back on. Phew, that was a close one. Now you are a little more presentable before your big show.

Pick a song sung by the opposite sex. If you are a bearded man, scream Alanis Morrissette’s “You Oughta Know.” If you are a woman, slip into some James Brown and sing it like it’s made with cool ranch dip. Don’t sing songs that you look like you would sing.

Second thing, whatever you do, DO NOT SING WELL. This just isn’t cool, folks. Plain and simple. You can put your heart and soul into a song, gyrate, play air guitar, and close your eyes, but it can’t have any real talent written on it. People came here to see entertaining, not good. The drunker you are, the louder the cheers. If you’re on key for too long, be prepared for a couple of boos.

The ticket is to master “trying hard without making it look like you’re trying hard.” If all else fails, stick close to your friends. They will love you and cheer you on no matter how boringly halfway decent you are.

If you want (this is for the brave souls): go out with a bang. Pretend to jerk off the microphone in the hipster haters’ faces. Ironically, they will love you after you do this. But always remember… it’s not about them liking you, it’s about fun.

Oh look, you’re up next.

Good luck…err…I mean – whatever, man.