Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#54, September 28, 1999


by Marylaine Block

Chicago these days looks like a chorus of "Old McDonald" - "Here a cow, there a cow, everywhere a cow cow." In front of the Wrigley Building, in Grant Park, beside the Planetarium and Field Museum, and on virtually any sidewalk in the Loop, there are "Cows on Parade."

What is this? A backhanded apology to Mrs. O'Leary's cow for all the nasty things said about her and the Chicago Fire? A reminder that Chicago was once meatpacker to the world?

Maybe both, but mostly it's an amazing public art exhibit, jointly sponsored by Chicago's Department of Tourism and Department of Cultural Affairs. The basic cows, made from a fiberglass and polyester compound, are paid for by local businesses and organizations, who sponsor an artist to decorate them with some appropriate theme. There are some 300 cows, no two of them remotely alike.

Some cows work obvious themes: the Planetarium cow is jumping into the moon. A light brown cow is inscribed on one side HOW and on the other NOW. The "Sacred Cow" shows off stained glass windows. Appropriately, in the home of the Cubs and Harry Caray, a Swiss-cheese sort of critter is the "Holey Cow!"

Which does bring up the issue of truly awful puns, of which there is an extraordinary array, starting with the zebra-striped cow wearing shades who is -- you guessed it -- "InCOWgnito." Picasso is commemorated with two cubist-inspired cows: PiCOWso and "Guernsica." "Muddy Holly," complete with black-framed glasses, plays guitar, while the cow covered with newsprint, is of course "black and white and read all over." "Carmen MOOranda" models a fruit-plate hat, while a COWch Potato lounges in front of a television. The most elaborate bad pun is the cow that is part fighter plane: the "F-22 Dairy Air Enforcer (USA)."

The exhibit is also a splendid opportunity for civic boosterism. One cow sports the Chicago skyline on its side, while several others celebrate Chicago art, music and theatre. The one in front of the Cultural Center helpfully displays elevated train routes. Roosevelt University's cow is painted with the design of the Louis Sullivan Arch, while yet another displays pictures of "Famous ChiCOWgoans."

Cows sponsored by local businesses advertise their services. One United Airlines entry, hanging from wires in the airport, invites you to ponder what the world would be like "If Cows Could Fly." The cow by United's office in the Loop is a London Cow, wearing the classic black Beefeater hat (I couldn't resist warbling "They're changing the guard at Buckingham Palace; Christopher Robin went down with Alice"). The Palmer House Aristocow reproduces the hotel's elegant 19th century ceilings.

Some of the cows are purely for fun. The red cow suspended upside down is "Odalisque (Reclining Nude)" and Ferragamo's vampy blonde cow proves that "Diamonds Are a Cow's Best Friend." If women can run with the wolves, wolves can "Graze with the Cows." When October ends, the cows will be dismounted and auctioned off for charity. Never again will they graze in herds, with yellow traffic signs advertising their presence. That's sad, because the impact is from the cows in quantity.

You see, this is what diversity is really about: hundreds of people looking at the same thing, with wildly different visions of what it could become. One theme gets mixed up with hundreds of individual minds stocked with different songs and poetry and bits of history and visions of better worlds, past or present. It's like the national anthem, sung thousands of times but never stale, because there's always a new voice, a different instrument, an unusual arrangement.

Singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn tells us we need poets to "show us new ways to see." And that's what a nation like ours, with its wondrous mix of ancestries -- black and white and red, all over -- does for us. We are always running into new ways of seeing the world around us.

Do have a cow. In fact, think about what your own cow would look like. I guarantee you, it will be different from anybody else's.

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