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Back when I first moved to New York, I didn’t know how to cook very well, so my roommates and I ended up ordering out almost every night.  The profusion of infinite restaurants featuring delicious cuisine from everywhere in the world seemed like one of the city’s great features back then.  My favorite sort of take-out cuisine is Chinese, so we would order Chinese from New Panda Garden or Szechuan Delight at least once a week (and sometimes more).

Then one day, my roommate came back with a menu for a new place: Uncle Liao.  We had immense fun saying the name (which you should try) and we started ordering their sour pork cabbage delight—which was magically delightful. Coincidentally, according to a Chinese-speaking friend, “Liao” means “old” in Chinese—so their name was something like “Uncle Old” or maybe “Venerable Courtesy Relative.”  We ordered Uncle Liao all the time and poor Panda Garden closed (and Szechuan Delight was relegated only for the occasions when we had to have sweet and sour chicken, which they did really well).  But then a funny thing happened: the novelty faded from Uncle Liao and the food stopped seeming so delicious.  After a while my roommate picked up a “Red Hot” menu and soon Uncle Liao dropped out of the rotation.

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It is possible, of course, that their food became less good over time (indeed the internet tells me they closed a decade ago for gross health code violations), however I believe the whole cycle was illustrative of the human need for novelty.  After a while the most delicious food loses its special savor, and the most gorgeous ornaments look stale next to newer baubles.  We have an insatiable appetite for novelty–and it is this taste (not the need for sour pork-cabbage delight) which drives more of human activity and purpose than I ever would have credited.  Lately I see Uncle Liao scenarios everywhere: in media, in politics, in relationships, especially in the arts (which are afflicted by a real weakness for novelty even if the new work is stupid or inane)…yet even science and academia are prone to the “good because it is new” phenomenon.  I suppose this itself is good, since it drives change and innovation, but it is alarming too…our collective hunger which can never be sated which draws us to new things even if they are stupid or tasteless (or kind of too salty with too much MSG).   I don’t propose not trying new things (far from it), but we should be aware that they tend to overperform on the curve and most of them are destined for the back of the folder…or the landfill…or the “CLOSED” tab on the menu finder.

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We have “dark” (Yummmm!!) we have “milk” (yumm!) and we have the cloying travesty that is “white”(ummm…I guess this is for people who like the idea of chocolate but who don’t like the delicious flavor, the robust color, or the pleasant texture)… and thus has it been for many lives of men. But now, a marketing company has crafted a whole new hue/variety of chocolate “ruby” which is a sort of sad etiolated reddish color. An honest colorist would probably call it “sickly pink”.
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Allegedly, ruby chocolate is made from a whole new cultivar of cacao plant. These ruby beans have been grown secretly in Ecuador, Brazil, and Cote D’Ivoire by mad German scientists in silent service to Callebaut (the chocolate maker which I have also never heard of until their effort garnered a bunch of attention from the media). All chocolate lovers are going to have to try this overpriced weird looking stuff (just in case) but it is highly probable we will quickly discover that it is a worthless marketing stunt (like most things in our oversaturated oversold era). Here is a very funny article from the NYTimes which skewers the inane language of this novelty chocolatier.
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This is all good fun, but it brings up a bigger question about why humankind is so profoundly susceptible to novelty. We know what is good and what works well, but we will happily trade it all for a quick-tongued peddler’s dodgy-looking magic beans (literally, in this ruby bean chocolate case…but figuratively in art, politics, culture and all sorts of other venues). I guess this is ok and is all part of humankind’s desperate tragic fire-wielding ascendancy: you don’t go from pathetic leopard-fodder hominid to planet girdling superorganism in a mere 100,000 years without trying a lot of new coke and diving dolphins. Yet I can also see why venerable people start to roll their eyes at the pop-stars, computer apps, and cronuts which culture lavishly fawns upon and then instantly forgets. There are a lot of pinkish beans and not may rubies…
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[The role of the greedy simpleton will be played by, um, everyone]

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I apologize: I got sort of a late jump on writing my blog post today (it is already 2:00 AM tomorrow), so it is going to be predominantly visual…but that’s ok.  Explaining this business wouldn’t help anyway.  These are “magical” prophetic teacups.  Apparently as the querant (?) drinks his or her tea (or whatever mystical brew they favor) bits are left by atop the various symbols.  Gifted diviners (snicker) can use these portents to peer into the murky future.

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I’m, uh, not so sure about all of that, but the cups are beautiful in their own right and I really can’t stop looking at all the magnificent little animals and daggers and what have you.  Somebody should make a contemporary version…or, then again, maybe not…it would probably be little robots and carbon atoms and mushroom clouds and corporate brands.  Better to stick with snakes and spinning wheels.

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Wow! There is a lot of exciting space news in the headlines lately…it is a thrilling time to have one’s eyes fixed on the heavens.  However, for the moment, let’s tear our eyes from the splendors of the firmament and concentrate instead on the most mundane of wonders here at our feet—the potato.  Originally domesticated in the Andes mountains, the potato is a small starchy tuber which…

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Whoah! What the heck? That’s not the garden-variety potato! What is going on here?

It turns out that this massive potato is a public sculpture by Idaho artists Chris Schofield and Sharolyn Spruce, who specialize in fabricating large custom projects (a job I would dearly love to have).  According to the Idaho Potato Commission’s website, they built this colossal spud to promote “the certified heart-healthy Idaho Potato, and its mission… to help small charities in town and cities with its Big Helping Program.”

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Made of concrete, plywood, foam, and steel, the six ton sculpture weighs as much as 32,346 medium-sized Idaho potatoes (at least according to the PR literature of the great potato mavens who commissioned it). The potato travels cross-continent on a special big-rig with circuslike giant vegetable slogans on it, however now that it has reached the Hudson tidal zone, the truck and the faux tuber have moved aboard a special barge which is being pushed around the city by tug boat.   Now when is that giant duck going to get here?

Blossom Monster (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, paper mache and mixed media)

Blossom Monster (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, paper mache and mixed media)

Today’s post touches on larger aesthetic and moral issues, but first let’s showcase some weird art!  This is “Blossom Monster” a 3 foot by 7 foot chimerical monster which I made to celebrate the annual reappearance of the cherry blossoms.  It is a sort of cross between a deep sea fish, a scorpion, and a horse. The creature is crafted from paper mache (or papier-mâché?) and has LED-light up eyes and fluorescent pink skin which glows faintly in the dark.  I initially placed it beside the tulip bed, but then I realized it was on top of the iris, so now the creature has been shuffling aimlessly around the garden looking for a permanent display spot. “Blossom Monster” is made of discount glue which I bought in bulk from the 99 cent store, so, as soon as it rains, the sculpture will probably dissolve into a heap of gelatinous ooze and that will be that.

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There is nothing more beautiful than cherry blossoms, so why did I make a weird ugly fluorescent monster to go with them? I have a story to answer that question: every year the Brooklyn Botanic garden has a famous cherry blossom festival which is attended by tens of thousands of people (at the least).  Although I think the tree in my garden is prettier than any individual specimen they have, the Botanic Garden has orchards full of Kwanzan cherry trees along with hawthorns, quinces, magnolias, plums, horse-chestnuts, and other splendid flowering trees.  The effect is truly ineffable—like the Jade Emperor’s heavenly court in Chinese mythology.  Yet over the years people became bored with the otherworldly beauty of trees in full flower, so the Botanic Garden was forced to augment their festival by adding odd drum performances, strange post-modern theater, and K-pop music.  They also invited cosplayers–so now the blossom festival is filled with space robots, ronin, mutant turtles, and provocatively attired cat-people (in addition to the already heterogeneous citizenry of Brooklyn).

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Adding layers of kitsch, tragic drama, manga, and human aspirations (of all sorts) has greatly augmented the peerless beauty of the blossoms.  The prettiness of the garden has been elevated into high-art by the plastic hats, spandex, and makeup.  The blossom festival now has a fascinating human element of ever-changing desire, aspiration, and drama which the blossoms lacked by themselves (except maybe to gardeners, who know exactly how hard it is to get perfect flowers to grow).

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Of course the shifting annual particulars of novelty do not match the timeless beauty of the cherry trees. In a few years we will all hate princesses, k-pop, and furries which will seem like hopelessly outdated concepts from the ‘teens. The blossom festivals of tomorrow will be attended by future people wearing neo-puritan garb, or hazmat suits, or nothing! Who knows? The allure of the cherry blossoms will never change, but the whims of the crowd beneath will always make the blossoms seem new.

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Novelty has always struck me as weak sauce, but it is, by nature, a new sauce.  It needs to be drizzled on things to make them appealing (even if they are already the best things—like cherry blossoms).  This is a monstrous truth behind all fads, tastes, and art movements.  I have represented it in paper mache and fluorescent paint! Once my monster dissolves I will have to come up with a new act for next year.

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