Ode to April Fool’s Day

I’m a dream date for people who love April Fool’s Day. I’ve fallen for at least three pranks today already. (My favorite was the email from my Wisconsin State Assembly rep who said all 34 Democratic Assembly members have decided to go ahead and leave the state too.)

One April Fool’s prank in 1993 actually changed the course of my life. I was a religious studies major, planning to go on to get my PhD and become a professor (I mean, what else is a person gonna do with that degree?). I found religion such a fascinating topic, I could easily imagine spending the rest of my life studying it. I joined the Undergraduate Religious Studies Association (URSA), which published a monthly newsletter.

For April Fool’s Day of my junior year, we made a mock newsletter in which we poked fun at the department, ourselves, and the professors. We were not a spiteful crew, but we had a fun time with phony interviews, make-believe book reviews, and doctored photos. It was all good-natured, so we were pretty shocked when a couple of the professors were outraged. “How dare you make light of my life’s work?” and “Maybe you don’t see the value in this, but I can assure you others do.” That sort of thing.

James Hart, professor of phenomenology--whatever that means...

Their responses were so egotistical that I began to wonder what it does to a person to devote one’s life to an obscure area of study which, in the larger scheme of things, just doesn’t matter that much. I always figured academia would be a great gig: a way to have a good job, enrich the lives of students, and have a nice time. But maybe for some people — people who might be inclined to take themselves a little too seriously or who possess well-endowed egos — the world of academia might not be the most conducive to building good character. I do not suffer from a small ego, and I take myself way too seriously. I could suddenly see myself becoming way too sensitive about things that just didn’t matter that much if I indulged my desire to delve into the study of 16th century manifestations of the stigmata. I looked around, there were a lot of weirdly pampered personalities at the university.

Of course, now I know that there are a lot of weirdly pampered personalities everywhere, but I think I was right to recognize that I would have become one myself if I had decided to go down that road. I had just the right type of character flaws to end up that way if I put myself on that particular path. Now that I’m adult, I feel confident I could go get my PhD without wrecking my personality, but of course now there would be no point to it. Nobody is hiring religious studies professors these days.

So, I became a VISTA volunteer (like the domestic Peace Corps), worked at a variety of odd (and I do mean odd) jobs, and here I am today. If you think I’m pompous now, all I can tell you is that I’ve truly tried to keep it to a minimum.

I want to wrap up by giving a shout out to Jim Hart, a religious studies professor and dyed-in-the-wool peace activist who never made tenure but who made a world of difference. No one received more of a good-natured lambasting than he did in our mock newsletter. He had spent at least a decade working on a definitive text on phenomenology and another on the philosopher Husserl. If you don’t understand what the previous sentence means, then all I can tell you is that you are in good company. It’s been estimated that roughly five people living today would be able to work their way through Jim Hart’s dense prose. In our newsletter, we nonetheless reported that he was the first writer to win both the American Philosophy Association’s Book of the Year and the Newberry Award. We came up with quite a few mocking reviews. Jim thought it was hilarious and posted it up on his wall. He had a pretty good sense of what really mattered in the scheme of things.

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