Sunday, March 27, 2022

"Nasty things"


     I don't like orchids, I thought, but did not say aloud, when Edie suggested we go to The Orchid Show: Untamed at the Chicago Botanic Garden. We already had four tickets, a benefit of our annual membership. They'd been on the magnetic board in the kitchen for months. I never suggested we go, not being an orchid fan. The show had been running since Feb. 12—last time we went to the Botanic Garden my wife suggested we go, but forgot the tickets at home. The show was closing Sunday. It was now or never; well, now or not for almost a year anyway.
     The weather was rainy and drippy and cold, mid-30s, perfect day to go to the show, which of course is indoors. We got in the car.
     "At least there won't be many people there," I predicted. Sometimes, perhaps because of the pandemic, the Botanic Garden seemed positively packed, at least when you first arrived. Once you get into the garden, toward the prairie and the greenhouses and such, the population thins out. Most people don't want to toddle too far past the entrance.
     I was certain the rain would keep everyone away. But the parking lot had plenty of cars, and obviously a good number of folks braved the showers to see the show. As we looked for a space, I remembered, for some odd reason, going to see the band Bread at Blossom Music Center in Cleveland in the mid-1970s. I'd never go of my own accord—as with orchids, I didn't like Bread—but was tagging along with others, and joked beforehand that no one would be there, that it would be us, alone with the band, playing forlornly on the stage, heads down, ashamed. Maybe they'd give up doing even that, set aside their instruments, come over, sit on the edge of the stage, and explain how they came up with lyrics like, "Baby I'm-a want you...." It didn't even make grammatical sense.
    I was shocked to see the venue jammed with Bread fans. Who could have imagined?
     The Orchid Show: Untamed was quite lovey, with orchids hanging from the ceilings high above the entrance room, and in the smaller greenhouses all manner of shapes and sizes and colors—purples and orchers, yellows and whites. Speckled, and banded and striped. The signage was on-point and interesting. I didn't not know that orchids are hearty survivors—the slogan for the show is "Nature Finds a Way"—and thrive around the globe, practically from pole to pole. After the eruption of Krakatoa, the first plants to sprout in the volcanic ash were orchids, and they're spring up in the most inhospitable places. 
    That isn't a reason not to like them; I didn't know that aspect about them, and lent them a grudging respect. They're the most beautiful weeds ever.
     I wondered if it might be anthropomorphic. There is a certain screaming face aspect to some orchids. Look at the orchid on the top of the page: eyes squinched, kind a bonnet. Something monstrous.
     No, that's not it. I gazed some more. Some are certainly very, ah, vulvic. Maybe not liking orchids is some kind of unconscious hostility toward women. No, that can't be it either—if it were, the idea would never come to me and, besides, I think women are just swell, in general.
     Then what?
     When I was growing up in Berea, the father of one of my sister's friends raised orchids, and I remember, once, visiting his home, with the large greenhouse off one side, which of course we had to admire. Maybe that was it. There was a strangeness to it, with its heat and humidity and its special lights and the hovering father pointing out this prize and that. He was an odd duck.
     So orchids are an oddity, the realm of eccentrics, the crazy aunt of the flower world, with her purple hair and batik. That felt closer.
      Is there an air of weirdness and marginality to orchids? The only product that comes from orchids is vanilla, from one type of orchid, vanilla planifolia. (Vanilla doesn't come from vanilla beans—that's a misnomer—they're actually pods). Vanilla isn't eccentric. Returning to sex, vanilla is the very definition of mainstream and ordinary, though that seems unfair: in ice cream preference vanilla runs neck-and-neck with chocolate in popularity. And everybody thinks chocolate is great. Maybe chocolate has a better PR firm).
     Edie didn't know I was puzzling through this, but she offered an observation closer to the mark. We were reading about the omnipresence of orchids, who they have been on earth for 110 million years, live in every clime and zone: above the Arctic circle, in deserts, on bare rocks—particularly surprising since their tiny seeds lack endosperm, and thus need to form symbiotic relationships with various fungi in order to germinate. (One locale where orchids are relatively scarce, I was surprised to learn in the Britannica, are rain forests).
     "How can they grow everywhere when I can't keep one alive?"
     Could that be it? I vague recall getting an orchid as a present from an admirer, taking it home and trying to keep the thing alive. Which I was unable to do. That seems a mean and petty reasons not to like such a varied and colorful realm of flowers. Because I killed one. Though people do generally have an easier time forgiving the wrongs that others have done then they do forgiving others for the wrongs they themselves have done against them. If that makes any sense. I was close to vowing to do better, and give orchids another chance.
     Then I put the question to my cousin Harry—we talk frequently about diverse topics. He reminded me of the opening of Raymond Chandler's mystery classic, "The Big Sleep," where  Philip Marlowe meets the invalid General in his greenhouse.  You can see the scene from the 1946 Howard Hawks noir film version with Humphrey Bogart here. In the book, the old man complains of his ailments and explains "the orchids are an excuse for the heat." Leading to this passage where the General asks:
     "Do you like orchids?"
     "Not particularly," I said.
     The General half-closed his eyes. "They are nasty things. Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men. And their perfume has the rotten sweetness of a prostitute."
     So there it is. At least it's not just me.


  1. So, I hate liver. The idea that people actually want to eat liver is literally astounding to me. It's like drinking cough syrup with your dinner. But orchids? They're exotic, colorful and there are so many different varieties that are different from each other. I mean, roses are pretty much roses, daisies are daisies, etc. But when you say orchid, what do you mean: Dendrobium, Vanda, Lady Slippers, Cattleya (corsage orchids), Sherry Baby (that smell like chocolate covered cherries), and the easiest to grow, Phalaenopsis. If you're careful, you can have an orchid plant in bloom for a couple of months; cut flowers are dead in a week. Some are easier to maintain than others; maybe you got the wrong kind. Phalaenopsis are common and easy to care for. I've never had trouble keeping a Phalaenopsis alive, although I've rarely been successful in getting them to rebloom.

    Obviously, we're all entitled to hate what we hate (add licorice, beans and oatmeal to my list of foods I hate), but really... flowers?

    1. At the risk of piercing your bubble, I have to point out that the word "hate" does not appear in my piece. You leap from "don't like" to "hate," which are very different sentiments. So you're reacting to something that wasn't said. Which might be an opportunity for reflection.

    2. Point well taken. I shall now take leave to reflect.

  2. So did you ever read the Nero Wolfe novels, as he was obsessed with orchids?

  3. "I don't like orchids, I thought, but did not say aloud" as I saw the photo and topic of this post. But I read it and looked at the rest of the photos. Pretty colors, though I still don't like orchids and that's about the extent of it!

  4. I too have not been a particular fan of orchids. Asymmetrical, too fiddly, require Nero Wolfe-like obsessions. Give me some nice African violets any day. Took my daughter to an event for students admitted to CalTech somewhere up on the fancy north shore. House was full of lovely orchids, all in bloom. I asked the hostess if she had some other place where she put the ones not currently blooming. She said "oh no, I have a service for that."

  5. Orchids? Meh. I can take them or leave them. My favorite orchid is Old Orchid, the shopping destination. When I hear about orchids, I mostly think of Bill Veeck, and the 1948 Cleveland Indians.

    Veeck emphasized attracting more female fans, believing that if Ladies Day proved to women that they could come to the Cleveland ballpark and have a good time, they would become regular paying customers. So he orchestrated promotions like the Princess Aloha Orchid Night, handing out orchids to the first 20,000 female fans. The flowers were flown directly to Cleveland from Hawaii. You could even say he orchid-strated this event, but I won't.

    Veeck's efforts paid off in increased attendance. Cleveland not only beat the Braves in the 1948 World Series, but the team drew 2.6 million fans that season, an all-time record. That figure was not eclipsed until Dodger Stadium opened, in 1962.

  6. "Some are certainly very, ah, vulvic. Maybe not liking orchids is some kind of unconscious hostility toward women."
    Now there's a field day for your analyst, considering the etymology of the term orchid...
    I share your sense of wrongness about orchids, and I love them too. There's nothing like waiting, and waiting, and finally a glorious and bewitchingly fragrant bouquet of cattleyas erupts from that spidery mess.

    1. I didn't realize "orchid" comes from the Greek word for testicles. That would have been an interesting tangent. I feel lucky to have such scholarly readers.

    2. A delightful observation and juxtaposition by Mr. Eisenberg. Those orchids certainly contain multitudes. It's indeed interesting that the name origin never came up in your rather extensive ruminations, given your enjoyment of etymology, NS.


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