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April Fools’ Day is every day nowadays

In no mood for lies, even funny ones. And Samuel Pepys reminds us of the danger of self-satisfaction in a time of suffering.

17th century portrait of Samuel Pepys, in wig and coat.
Samuel Pepys quadrupled his fortune in the plague year of 1665. He also had lots of affairs, seductions and committed assaults. His own “joy, health, and profit” blinded him to Londoners dying all around.
Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday is April 1, April Fools’ Day. Were I on my game, this might be a prank column to underscore some ridiculous aspect of our locked-down social-distancing moment. America at full stop, waiting for the crunch of the iceberg.

Hats off to whoever pulls off the feat today. I’m not that guy.

Frankly, reality impoverishes parody lately. You don’t need me. If you want a sick joke, turn on the television this afternoon, and you’ll find reality that beggars the imagination. Compared to the daily presidential pratfall, I got nothin’. Every day is April Fools’ Day.

Besides, deceit stings, even when intended as humor. People have been posting alerts on Facebook announcing a certain state suspending liquor sales — don’t worry boozehounds, it isn’t happening. A jest, yet I silently unfriend the poster anyway. Not in the mood.

It isn’t that nothing is funny. That deadpan video Mayor Lori Lightfoot made, urging Chicagoans to “Stay Home, Save Lives” (“Your dog doesn’t need to see its friends,” she says). That’s wry — Lori Lightfoot is the Buster Keaton of politicians.

Still. When this is over — assuming it ever ends — I don’t want to look back at myself yukking it up as the death toll mounts. I’m not even comfortable giving my own report — boys and wife home, working remotely, all fine. It smacks of obliviousness, of those posts demanding that instead of marking the death toll we should celebrate those who HAVEN’T died. I unfriend them too, thinking of Samuel Pepys.

Pepys is the guy journalists call on to give a whiff of literary heft to their hour’s research on the history of pandemics. A high official in the English Navy, Pepys kept a diary through 1665, when the Black Death gripped London. He comments on the bodies in the streets, the rich people fleeing, the vain remedies like “plague-water.”

But one truth can escape those who haven’t actually spent time reading the diary: Pepys was a swine. Not just for his habit of groping any nearby maid or subordinate’s wife. Or his attempt to buy a peasant’s children, as a joke.

What damns Pepys is how unaffected he is, generally, as plague rages around him. He has no trouble lauding his happy and pleasant life: Here’s a typical entry, from July 13, 1665 — it’s much longer, but I’ll focus on the end:

“There come to dinner, they having dined, but my Lady caused something to be brought for me, and I dined well and mighty merry, especially my Lady Slaning and I about eating of cream and brown bread, which she loves as much as I. ... and so parted, and I home to some letters, and then home to bed. Above 700 died of the plague this week.”

Anything odd about that? Maybe you need to read the big block of mundane prattle that goes before. Some 100,000 people, a quarter of London’s population, died of the plague. The effect on Pepys?

“I do end this month with the greatest content, and may say that these last three months, for joy, health, and profit, have been much the greatest that ever I received in all my life,” he writes Sept. 30, 1665.

In his defense, he is occasionally troubled.

“It was dark before I could get home, and so land at Church-yard stairs, where, to my great trouble, I met a dead corpse of the plague, in the narrow ally just bringing down a little pair of stairs,” he writes Aug. 15. “But I thank God I was not much disturbed at it.”

Nobody wants to be disturbed. So we shelter in place, binge Netflix, avoid the news. We all want to feel good. I do, too. But good feeling must be tempered with awareness of the pain around us. We all know what a man without empathy looks like. We see, some of us, how ugly that is, to have no care for the misfortune of others. I’m not saying wear sackcloth and ashes and squat at the gates of the city. Keep your chin up. But also pause before celebrating your lucky 2020, should you have one. This is a dark time for America — disaster brought on part by nature, part by official bungling. Don’t confuse luck with merit. You could be next. Or me. Or us both.

That’s why no prank today. Maybe next year.