It started early in our relationship and is one of the many little things about my wife that makes me smile. I start every morning with a cup of coffee, and I’ve never been particular about the brand or the quality. On the other hand, my wife really likes her coffee, and would rather go without than drink a weak brew. This has meant that my morning joe for nearly thirty years has been dark, robust, and flavourful. Except for one day, every year.
On this exceptional day, I follow my predictable routine and navigate directly for the coffee pot before anything else. My wife is a morning person, and the pot is always brewed before my eyes open. I fill my mug near to the brim, add a teaspoon of sweetener (because I’m NOT already sweet enough), bring it to my lips, and blow across the hot surface to cool it some. Anticipating the flavour and caffeine kick, I take a mouthful… and immediately turn, lean over the sink, and spit every salty drop into the drain. And when I look up, there she is, smiling. She gives my arm a little pinch and then a punch and says, “Happy first of the month!” And once again, I swear she won’t get me next year.
Although I grew up aware of April 1st traditions, my family did not invest in pranks. Nor did we monthly recite a medieval rhyme, meant to ward off bad luck and weaken witches. The origins for the day of pranksters may be older than the rhyme, reaching back to ancient Rome. It is understood that April Fool’s shenanigans are all meant in fun – no harm, no foul. Apparently, back in 1992, a media prank broadcast Richard Nixon’s return to politics and a run for the White House. A few years later, Taco Bell announced it had purchased an American icon and renamed it Taco Liberty Bell. A personal favourite is the invitation to play Pac Man on Google Maps. Funny, right? Just like gagging on salty coffee.
It's just a joke.
A joke is something to cause amusement or laughter. We can feel relief in a laugh, and science supports this conclusion. To have a sense of humour is to appreciate the joke, but humour also means, “mood or state of mind.” Is it still a joke when someone is not laughing? It seems common that a joke is shared at someone’s expense; there is a target. Looking backwards, it is easy to find examples of skits, lampoons, and jokes that would not pass today. They would just not be tolerated. Despite this, there are many successful performers who have built careers with material that is offensive – to someone. So, what is an appropriate response when sensibilities have been violated, and just how fine is that line?
Many readers will recall the slogan Je Suis Charlie, created by French art director Joachim Roncin. The declaration was coined to identify with victims of a violent attack upon the offices of a French satirical newspaper. The paper had published a cartoon that offended Muslim extremists. Depending upon one’s point of view, the cartoon was either satire or Islamophobic provocation. Regardless, the perceived offense did not justify the loss of twelve lives. There is no justification for such extreme violence. Violence, no matter the degree, is never an appropriate response to the ignorant and the insensitive… right? Full disclosure: as a husband and father, human and flawed, my own judgement may waffle at this question. My inner voice whispers to me, quiet and contrite, “it depends.”
To be clear, I am not equating the sensational assault which has spawned more than 5 billion hits in Google – depending upon the search string – with vengeful murder. The two incidents are a universe apart… well, worlds apart, with countless degrees of separation. But together they form bookends, framing the discourse of a fundamental question: can we live together and teach harmony, true respect, and honour for all the differences in our human condition?
On this question, my inner voice does not equivocate and says, a little pinched and desperate, “I must believe so.”