A friend of mine, who found herself staying with friends in the Vermont woods when the shut-down came, texted me to see if we could set up a time to talk. I looked at my schedule. “I don’t think it’ll work,” I said. “My social conferencing schedule today is all filled.”
And it was true: I had a video conference with my colleagues at Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! in the early afternoon, followed by a scheduled FaceTime session with my sister in law and nieces in Colorado, and then, at 7, a virtual cocktail party with Tom Bodett and his wife and some friends of theirs in Vermont.
My wife Mara and I are never usually this social. We go weeks without seeing anybody outside our work, most especially in the evenings. But society, it turns out, is like food: You take it for granted most of the time, but when you can’t get it, it becomes all that you can think about.
We have passed into a kind of a fugue-state lifestyle. Nothing changes, and instead of rhythms of work, appointments, meals, theater tickets, it’s now just sleep, wake, stare at screen, eat, stare at screen, eat, stare at screen, talk to people on screen, eat, stare at different screen, sleep.
Oh: and, of course, running. My friends noted the somewhat judgmental reactions to the photo in the prior post and have doubly devoted themselves to be impeccable in their distancing while in motion. It also doesn’t help that runners nationwide have come under widespread criticism for not honoring social distancing. Apparently, some of our brethren in technical fabric have been a little aggressive on the shared sidewalks and paths of the nation. So when we met on Wednesday morning, we stood in a wide circle, like the distrustful crooks about to shoot each other at the end of Reservoir Dogs, except nobody fired. We tried to maintain that expanded circle while getting in our five miles. Hey, it’s a pain, but in the end, another great way to feel smug.
Our virtual cocktail party went off without a hitch, I’m proud to say. The company was great, the conversation sparkling, and the video connection mostly reliable. But were sitting on the couch, swapping stories of how we met from couple to couple, when I realized that this was wrong: This wasn’t a “cocktail party.” This was a sad simulation, an ersatz failed replacement for the real thing, in a way even more depressing than nothing at all. I knew what to do. I got up, went into the other room, made a gin martini straight up, with a twist, and sat back down in front of the computer.
Then, last night, Thursday night, was our third taping of Wait Wait during the quarantine. First we did it in an empty theater, then from our old studio at WBEZ, connected to other studios around the country. This week, another step towards complete isolation: Two of our panelists were participating from their homes, recording themselves on high-definition equipment while connected to us via remote meeting software, so we could talk to each other. It was, to put it succinctly, a disaster. Despite our engineers testing the systems all day, when we actually started talking to each other, we were beset by feedback, echoes, unintentional muting, and when we added in phone calls – from our listeners and from special guest Tim Gunn – things went pear-shaped.
But, like everybody else dealing with, well, everything else, we improvised. At one point I was wearing earbuds connected to my laptop under studio headphones connected to our sound board, with more cables running from my head than Frankenstein on the slab. When panelist Adam Burke, sitting next to me in studio along with Bill Kurtis, spoke up I had to take off my headphones so as to prevent the echo of his voice being picked up by my mic and fed back to me, then back on with the headphones to hear what Peter Grosz or Negin Farsad had to say. They all did the equivalent, as our engineers Lorna White and Robert Neuhaus turned feeds on and off.
But: Bill did a very credible version of “Dancing Queen” by Abba, rewritten to “Washing Queen.” Our panelists were upbeat, funny, and warm, and despite everything, we managed to conjure up the only thing that really makes our show worth listening to: a sense of genuine pleasure in everybody else’s company. It’s not 10,000 respirators – I wish it was! – but it’s a small good thing in a time like this.
Today, Friday: back in the house with the dogs, with the expanse of the weekend before us. My wife got bored the other day and put on her wedding dress, and I took a pic of her and tweeted it and it sort of went viral! We’re going to need another word for that, I think. I’ll work on it. I’ve got time.