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April Fools!

How to tell play from a dirty trick.

With April Fools’ Day lying in wait just around the corner, a recent news report seemed particularly timely. The Economic Report of the President for 2019, ordinarily a technical analysis read by a relative few, this time contained a bit of mischief that went viral.

Here’s the story: A paragraph acknowledging the help of student interns who fact-checked the report included none other than Peter Parker, J. B. Hutt, Bruce Wayne, and Jon Snow, all familiar characters from the Spider-Man, Star Wars, Batman, and Game of Thrones franchises. John Cleese, of Monty Python fame, made an appearance in the acknowledgments, too.

The White House spokesperson strained to pass this off as deliberate playfulness in the think tank. Those zany economists! But, a skeptical 'tweetocracy' was having none of that. Tweeters speculated that a junior staffer looking for payback bet that the paragraph would never be proofread. The overworked and overlooked often find a way to even the score; resistance is sometimes more effective when it’s amusing.

Usually, pranksters don't gain national attention. Practical jokers work one on one. They might put bubble wrap under a carpet, cut out a silhouette of a giant bug to stick to the inside of a lampshade, substitute cream cheese for the stick deodorant, or augment a fake-sneeze with a spray bottle. Gesundheit!

Each year as April 1 rolled around, I would become a willing target of recurring slapstick. My young daughters would play at twisting a scrunchie around the sink sprayer handle, rigging it to squirt me when I turned on the tap. Amidst the squealing, I’d yell, “What the—? Oh! It’s you two rascals again! You scamps! You rapscallions!” (My girls grew up thinking that rapscallion was a word in everyday use.)

It may be hard to find the exact point where play stops and some other opposite or tangential process takes over. But usually, we have no trouble telling the one from the other, especially when power is distributed unequally among players. In everyday experiences, we easily note when teasing turns to taunting, or when choosing up sides turns to exclusion, for example. When the motivation is cruel instead of lighthearted, and when the outcome of the prank is hurtful instead of humorous, play drains away. Bullying brings play to an end. “Dirty play” (a contradiction) drains away the fun.

The Strong Museum
From The Strong's Collections
Source: The Strong Museum

One of the surest ways to measure whether an activity is play or not, however, is to gauge its pleasurable mutuality. If the perpetrator and the recipient can both take pleasure, the prank is play rather than a dirty trick.

So let me set the scene for a prank designed to lighten the load:

This one started when we moved into a city neighborhood that at the time was perched between ruin and promise. The venerable housing stock needed a lot of attention. Our house had been owned for decades by a family who ran a wallpaper business. They had renewed the walls frequently. The accumulation, now hanging in strips, needed to go. But steaming off ancient wallpaper is a sticky, hot, and annoying task. And these layers, in some places fourteen deep, dated to sometime before the flu epidemic of 1918.

I couldn’t face the task alone in the summer heat and enlisted a game neighbor, I’ll call him Casey, a new friend who’d recruited me for similar exasperating home-improvement projects. Casey, a dedicated high school teacher in the inner city, a wry fellow, was smart and observant and skeptical. Having heard just about everything, nothing much got by Casey. Pulling a prank on him wouldn’t be easy; this would take some planning. But inspiration came to me in two words: TREASURE HUNT.

Where one section of wall had peeled back, I inscribed a message on the bare plaster. I had pulled down from the shelf one of Leo Rosten’s delightful books, The Joys of Yiddish, and searched the text for the word for “thieving.” Got it, “goniff.” On the back of the plaque, I wrote a vengeful message: “That woman and her goniff lawyer won’t get what is mine, but the emeralds are yours if you can find them. Look behind the Ten Commandments.”

I made sure that Casey was working on that section and waited, and then waited some more, to hear him say. “Look, here. Somebody’s playing a joke on us.” Standing on a ladder to scrape the ceiling, I stayed put and only grunted. But I knew it would work on him. After about half-hour of silence, I finally asked, “What’s it say?” He read me the message. I decided just to laugh. "Ya. Funny.”

But after another long interval, I said, “That’s peculiar wording, isn’t it? If it was about the wages of infidelity, it would have said, ‘Look to the Ten Commandments,' not 'Look behind the Ten Commandments. Weird.”

After about 45 minutes working in impatient silence, he said, “Okay, all right, so, you know, religious people may have a plaque of some sort with the Ten Commandments.” I said, “Probably.” But I knew that the hook had sunk in, because the night before I had taken the metal Ten Commandments plaque that the previous owners had left us, and, begging for forgiveness, inscribed, in the same hand on the back, a series of clues about where to find those emeralds. I wondered how long it would take to reel him in.

After a few minutes, I said, “I believe there may have been a divorce in that family, way back.” “Where’s that plaque?” Casey immediately wanted to know. I said, “I think we gave it to Goodwill.”

Instead, it was in the basement waiting to be discovered. It wouldn’t have done to reveal that right away, though. After a time, I said, "You know, I think, maybe not. It’s somewhere.”

This started the chase. We headed downstairs to look in cabinets, under stairwells, under a bunch of boxes, and in closets. Finally, in the last closet, Casey discovered the plaque and on the reverse side the instructions that said, “Three doors left, Main St. It will be music to your ears.” Casey said, “I think this means we’re supposed to face this way,” he pointed, taking charge, “we should start here,” he said.

This old house (we still live in it) has plenty of closets. We worked our way up. “When we got to the second floor, I said, “If we find the gems, Casey, I swear I’ll split them with you!” At this point, the prank was turning into a Hardy Boys mystery, and I was getting into it myself.

There were four doors in the attic, one of which had to be pried open. Inside the last one, Casey spotted an old phonograph, and said, “Oh, my God! Look. Music!” He lifted the lid, and on the turntable, lay a tin box, and underneath a series of receipts written in Polish for remittances sent back to the old country, he found a note on ancient paper that read, “Okay Casey, time to get back to work!”

I had already edged toward the stairs, hoping for a head start toward the front door three floors down. We had run about a block and a half away before he tackled me. And there I took a few good-natured punches in the shoulder.

In person, on the phone, and later, email, we have laughed about that treasure hunt every April Fools’ Day for more than 30 years.

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