Fool's tools - for jolly jokers and wicked wisenheimers

If you're just thinking about it today, you're already too late. Don't even talk to me about switching the salt and sugar, or slipping Play-Doh in the slippers. I don't wait all year for amateurish stunts like that. Martha Stewart is right: Celebrating a major holiday takes planning and attention to detail. The perfect Christmas dinner doesn't come out of a box. If you want Thanksgiving to be special, you've got to raise the turkey by hand. Stop fooling around: April 1 requires preparation. And that's a good thing.™

Let's look ahead to next year. At the center of this clownish feast is, of course, the trick, and it's important to consider it carefully. Like any classic comedy, it should mix humor, surprise, and terror. Too much of one ingredient, and it's merely silly. Too much of another, and you go to jail.

Beginners might want to start with something modest. In college, for instance, I had a roommate who was annoyingly well-organized. His desk was a mosaic of Post-It notes on which he recorded little reminders, e.g. "Term paper due next Tuesday," "Pick up Shelly at 6:00." For several days in late March, I studied his handwriting, carefully tracing his Post-Its until I could do a fair imitation. On April 1, I left him several additional reminders from himself: "Fill the trunk with stones," "Nail flowers to the thigh," and "Pick up Orlando." Hardly the prank of the century, but it was sweet to see him staring off, trying to remember why he should attend to these crucial tasks.

Several years later, I was teaching at a small college in the Midwest. One of my classes was a writing course that communication majors needed in order to graduate.

On the big day, about halfway through the term, I sent out a letter dated March 32, informing my students that their class had been canceled because "the college can no longer guarantee my personal safety." I went on to explain that several of them, upset about their poor performance on a recent quiz, had beaten me up in my office. (Keep in mind that the last recorded act of violence on this campus was in 1934, when a squirrel dropped an acorn on someone's hand.)

A senior - one of several who would now have to delay graduation for a year - tracked me down right away.

"I just can't believe this could happen," he said, choking up a bit.

"Neither can I," I admitted honestly.

At that moment, he noticed the date on the letter. He stood up calmly and walked out of my office with grave dignity. I was a little alarmed at first - the perfect April Fool's joke always must involve a degree of danger for the prankster, too. But then I could hear him laughing and gasping and hooting as he ran down the hall.

In general, I don't recommend trying to trick family members. They know the rhythms of your mind too well. But several years ago, I couldn't resist. Our move to Boston had interrupted my wife's graduate work - again - on a degree in teaching English. She'd already spent a couple of years taking vacuous education courses and prerequisites and was finally looking forward to a very substantive program at Simmons College, where she'd been accepted in mid-March.

On April 1, I had a woman in our office call her at home. While I listened in on another extension, my friend introduced herself as a member of the admissions committee and said there were just a few minor complications with her application that needed to be cleared up.

"Oh?" my wife asked ominously.

"Yes, I see from looking at your transcript that you have never taken cell biology or nonlinear optimization."

The conversation went downhill (or uphill) from there. Finally, following the devilish script I'd written out, she explained that my wife would need to take about a year and a half of additional courses in math and science before she began her graduate program in English.

"But the admission director said nothing about this," my wife said with remarkable equilibrium.

"Yes," my friend said consolingly. "I hate to ask, but did the admissions director seem in any way odd to you?"

"Odd?"

"Yes, we've been having some complaints, which is why we're reevaluating all the applications. Did he use puppets during your interview, or try to speak with you entirely through interpretive dance?"

"I don't think so," my wife said, as if she might have forgotten those little details.

At this point, I could stand it no longer: "Dawn," I broke in, "what day is it?"

"Ron," she answered quickly, "get off the phone! I'm talking to the admissions department at Simmons."

The sweet taste of success. Bon appétit.

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