To operate successfully in life, you need context and perspective, or you’re operating like a stranger in a strange land.
And Madison can be a pretty strange land.
Last week, in a playful moment, the Madison City Council made the pink plastic flamingo the city’s official bird. Predictably, the story was picked up by the national media, and to be honest, most of them did a pretty good job of providing some context.
My friend Doug Moe, who has chronicled Madison’s foibles in the daily press for years, pushed for the official recognition of the lawn flamingo and his persistence was rewarded. The Los Angeles Times picked up the story and did a great job of explaining it, even bringing up some of Madison’s many connections to Hollywood and La-La-Land.
The Chicago Tribune did a small story about the flamingo, giving it some context by explaining that it was not just the random act of a political body given to debates on international relations and sister cities, but a tongue-in-cheek salute to one of the greatest college pranks of all time.
30 years ago this month, UW-Madison students awoke to find Bascom Hill covered with 1,008 pink plastic flamingos. The photos are legion and iconic. The college kids who did it…the Pail and Shovel Party…are the same folks who, a few months earlier, did the singularly memorable stunt of submerging a replica of the Statue of Liberty in Lake Mendota.
They’d promised that if they were elected to run student government, they’d move Lady Liberty to Lake Monona, and “made good” on the promise.
Fast forward three decades.
Today’s UW students have little, if any, perspective on what life on campus was like 30 years ago. I was stunned at the number of posts on Facebook, from college kids who thought the whole thing was ridiculous and gave their institution and its city another black eye, and fodder for Comedy Central. Obviously, these were knee-jerk reactions without perspective.
At least my son, who’s in his fifth year at the UW Business School, made the wry observation on Facebook that it seemed only natural, since the pink plastic flamingo is easily adapted for functional use as a beer bong. My frame of reference on “bong”, having been a student in the 60’s, is somewhat different.
Alder Thuy Pham-Remmele, whose rant about Madison and bicycles has become a YouTube classic, was predictably unamused by the council’s proceeding on the pink flamingo, and launched into another of her patented rants about wasting time.
There is nothing wrong with the council taking a few moments - and it was only a few moments - to celebrate our singularly unique history as a community. The crop of college kids over there these days could take a lesson or two from us old farts about how to leave a lasting legacy.