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Oak Parked: Day 14 in Quarantine with Peter Sagal

The second full week brings a through-the-window encounter with Chris Ware, growing cabin fever, and the home taping of a radio show.

Cartoonist Chris Ware —who drew this week’s New Yorker cover — waves from his Oak Park home.   Photo: Peter Sagal

I’ve run by the house of my friend the cartoonist Chris Ware hundreds of times, as it’s on one of my regular routes. These last few weeks, I’ve been looking over at his front windows, in the hopes of seeing him, or being seen, but he never appears.

This time, I texted him first. “I’ll be in front of your house in four minutes,” I said. When I arrived, he opened up the window in the attic studio of his perfectly maintained Victorian and waved to me, like one of the celebrity guests who would greet Batman and Robin when they were climbing up a building.

We checked in on each other, as one does – How are you? How’s your family? Everybody healthy and sane? – and Chris told me he was generally very happy. He’s spent nearly 30 years as a self-employed artist, spending his days in isolation inside his own head, so for him, this is not only nothing new to him but a kind of gift: He no longer has to feel guilty or sad for not joining the rest of the happy throngs as they socialize.

“I know what you mean,” I said. I have lived that life, too, as a freelance writer for most of the ’90s. But I was not nearly as suited to it as Chris is. That’s why, among other reasons, I wrote for the theater. A novelist or cartoonist like Chris – and, I should say, calling Chris Ware a “cartoonist” is like calling Michelangelo a “house painter” – eventually can look forward to holding their work in printed form, perhaps hearing from happy readers. I wrote plays with the hope that someday I could join groups of people for rehearsals, readings, productions. It is not an exaggeration to say that I became a playwright just so I could attend more cast parties.

“The fact is,” I said to Chris, shouting up from the sidewalk. “That’s why I decided to leave that life and take the job I’ve got now. I really needed to see people every day, and I really miss it.”

“That’s too bad,” said Chris, with the air of a kind man listening to a woman complain about menstrual cramps — he was genuinely sympathetic, but there was no way he could ever experience that particular pain. We promised to get together as soon as “all this” was over, and I went my way down the street as he waved from the window.

The situation, at least mentally, is deteriorating. All of us are waking up every day absent that once-taken-for-granted, now dearly missed, expectation that today, this day, might be the day that something truly interesting happens. But now, we know exactly what to expect: boredom, remote working, calls or Zooms with friends, TV, and eating. A lot of eating.

I am well aware that I am among the most fortunate and most well-equipped to deal with this crisis. Unlike medical workers and other first responders, and unlike delivery people and grocery workers and government officials who cannot afford to take off work, I am able to stay at home and not expose myself to physical danger. I have resources and a paying job. It may be odd to feel both terribly sorry for yourself and terribly fortunate, but I’ve been practicing that mental back-flip my whole life.

It was the philosopher Joni Mitchell who said, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,” and the list of things we once took for granted but discover we all now miss is different for everybody except in its growing length. We miss awkward obligatory dinners with family, in which everybody complains about the same things in the same way as last time, and we realize ultimately the complaining is the point. We miss the seemingly meaningless daily decisions: Where should I go for lunch today, or should I bring it to the office? Should I go for a run or hit the gym or just take the day off, knowing all my options will be still available tomorrow? Should I make plans for Friday night, or would it be more enjoyable just to stay in – you know, as a respite from the crazy week?

Now we decide what to eat, or more commonly, what to eat again. What window on our laptop or phone screen would be either most or least productive at any given moment. What time we might take the dogs out or go for a run. I used to do my runs as early as I could in the morning, so I could get them out of the way. These days, I postpone them so I can look forward to the one thing I’ve got to look forward to.

I know that other people are experiencing the same rising cabin fever, the same growing tension. A friend of mine told me that his teenage daughter and tween son have been driving each other crazy, as ancient tradition demands they do, and the daughter retreated to the bedroom and the son went after her and she slammed the glass door and he tried to stop her and the glass shattered and cut deeply into his arm, so off to the ER they went, where all was stitched up cleanly.

As a father myself, I shuddered with the felt memory of seeing a child injured and in pain, but what’s odd is that he prefaced the story by saying, “Here’s something for your blog….” As if he knew that having something, anything, happen was a gift … to me, as I try to fill this space, and, perhaps even to him. Hell, maybe even to his son, who now has a scar with a story behind it. “Oh, this? Well, this is from the Great Pandemic of 2020….”

On top of the terrible shortages we’re all facing — medical equipment and competent national leadership — add another: Nobody has any really great anecdotes anymore.

Sagal’s home studio setup Photo: Peter Sagal

Today’s a bit of a sad day, because for tonight’s taping of Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me! we have finally retreated to an entirely remote set-up. For the last two weeks, I was able to leave my house, go to the office to prep, and then head to WBEZ to tape, under the illusion that making fart jokes during a catastrophe was an essential industry. I would drive down the deserted Eisenhower to Navy Pier, pretending I was Balto the sled dog bringing the serum to Nome. But that wasn’t tenable – my sitting in a studio requires half a dozen other people to gather in support – so, tonight, we inaugurate ;the Sagal Home Studio, created in an oddly shaped closet off our TV room, where we’ve been storing souvenirs of our wedding from June 2018. It’s perfect – compact, with not a lot of echo, as bagged formal outfits do a great job of absorbing sound. I will be grateful to see my friends and colleagues – on a Zoom video chat, as we record ourselves on high-end home digital decks – and work with them, but I will still, again, be alone.

We are all in this together, apart.

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