Seen through the eyes of my 18 year old self, what I am doing right now establishes me officially as a loser. It’s Friday night and I am at home, alone with my laptop. Of course, there were no laptops at that time – so I guess the equivalent would have been staying home and watching TV. Although . . . I don’t remember having a TV in my dorm room either.
On October 16th of the year when I was 18, I was a new Freshman at UW Madison – a school famous for its (supposedly Germanic) ethics of “Work Hard and Play Hard”. That’s what we all did. Everyone studied from Sunday to Thursday afternoon and partied from Thursday afternoon to Sunday. I enrolled there one year after the university’s era of peak notoriety – the year when the infamous “Pail and Shovel” party ran the student government.
They had run on a platform of graft and corruption. Student government had been lame and useless, they said, and so they promised to waste every penny of the student government budget – but in a way that everyone would hear about. They promised to reroute the migration of the pink flamingos so that they would land in Madison. They said they would buy the Statue of Liberty and put it in Lake Mendota. They said they would turn the dome of the capital building upside-down and fill it with chicken soup.
They were elected.
All through my senior year of High School, as I was maintaining my GPA and applying for admission there, I would hear about the latest pranks in Madison. How students woke up one morning to find over a thousand pink plastic flamingos on the Bascom Hill lawn. How they rose on another morning in winter to find the head of Lady Liberty peeking out of the frozen lake. It was the coolest place ever. One day my letter of acceptance arrived in the mail. I was in! In May, I went to Madison to check out dorms and timed my visit with the infamous Mifflin Street Block Party – an annual event that had started 10 years earlier as a protest against the War in Vietnam, but was now just a big must-go-to party. I watched the student government president ride by on an outrageous float. He was dressed in a clown costume and was tossing joints out to the cheering crowds. The police standing around were looking intently in a different direction as he passed by.
I could hardly wait to move to Madison. This was my ticket out of Whitey-ville/Suburbia and the Me-Generation. This was my chance to be somewhere happening. I packed my secondhand clothes and my record player and my LPs and my popcorn-maker and my scrapbook into the car and headed west.
The first thing that I noticed was that the girls in my dorm had packed differently. They had a lot more clothes and none of it was secondhand. They had lots of make-up and nail polish. They all talked nervously about Rush Week and which were the best sororities and oh I hope they accept me. They discussed whether the Young Republicans Club or the football team had more cute guys. Cheerleader tryouts brought a lot of drama to the house. And the big question of the first month? Who is going to the Homecoming Dance?
I thought I had left high school. Apparently not.
And then came the coup de grace. It was November 1980 and Ronald Reagan won the presidential election in a landslide. The pendulum had officially swung to the right and we entered a long conservative wave in politics. A long, long, long downward spiral, the depths of which I could not have imagined.
At 18, I would never have believed that it would be 12 more years before my two American friends and I could do a pathetic little wave for Bill Clinton while watching the election returns here in Austria in the middle of the night. He was so much better than the alternative, but this was no pendulum swing. The era of big government was still over, marriage was in need of defense, welfare needed slashing and with three strikes you were out. Then came the eight miserable years of bushwhacking. Then came Obama, whom I love, but he never claimed to be personally as progressive as his followers. He tried for six years to compromise with his slowly self-immolating opponents, getting burned in each attempt. Meanwhile the citizenry and local governments decided on their own that it was time to end the war on drugs, the mass incarceration, the discrimination against gay people in love, the exploitation of low wage workers, the regulation of reproduction, the stopping and frisking, the drilling of the arctic . . .
And here we are now. October 16th 2015. Thirty-five years after the election of Reagan. Two nights ago the Democratic candidates debated and for the first time since my Freshman year, they vied for the title of “Most Liberal and Progressive”. This morning the alumni newsletter from UW-Madison arrived in my email inbox. It announced the return of the pink flamingos to the campus – part of its “cherished history” to be used in a campaign against our conservative governor’s plans to slash the university budget.
I think it was a sign.
I am a woman in her 50s and it is Friday night. I am alone and typing on a laptop. That might make me a loser to my 18 year old self. But I might just be experiencing now what that young girl spent 35 years waiting for. The return of the pink flamingos. The swing of the pendulum.