Since my marriage, I haven’t felt authorized to invite so many people to party me. And not since elementary school did, so many of them have nowhere to go. It was the great convergence of a captive audience, a near-stage, and the deep, pervasive need for fun that started my Zoom celebration one December evening, the biggest and best birthday party I’ve ever had. had.
At my age, i.e. middle-aged, we tend to quietly mark birthdays – a free latte from a nifty retailer, a flurry of Facebook posts, a nice dinner at a restaurant (when we went out for dinner). Maybe we buy a bag or a blouse that we are eyeing.
It’s a far cry from the gravity of childhood birthdays. If you remember, they felt historic. And once they’ve passed, you’ve waited an endless 364 days for the spotlight to come back. But somewhere along the way, birthdays only got slightly more special than the other days, which all pass faster than before. So unless you’re approaching an age with a zero, an adult birthday party feels indulgent. For one thing, your mom apparently doesn’t throw it away for you anymore.
However, the pandemic provided the big anniversary loophole. I returned, uh, this winter after months of homebound living; we had long jeans replaced by leggings, then leggings with sweatshirts. We barely wore bras. It wasn’t a party for me. It was a party for all of us.
So we went big. We live outside of Washington, DC, but invited friends from across the country – from Seattle to Atlanta to Boston – about 50 people, almost all of whom were in attendance. Of course, there wasn’t a lot of competition during a pandemic on Saturday night, but that kind of party removes so many other things that get in the way of getting together – no need to find a babysitter or travel. no matter where. It’s true that seeing a loved one on screen hardly rivals an actual hug, as any newly vaccinated grandparent able to kiss a grandchild can tell you.
But it was a revelation. We could bring together friends from earlier eras and time zones in one virtual room. And for middle-aged people, often squeezed between the relentless demands of career and children, it works particularly well. A single dad in Manhattan, New York, for example, apologized to bring his son home, then seamlessly joined the party.
To connect the more distant participants, we hired a company to host a trivia game – the host was based in Bahrain, and his location was the first trivia question. By forming teams, I paired up friends like to organize the table for our wedding. The writer friends from three different cities went to one team, the political guys (well, they were all local) to another. I reunited with friends, since scattered in New Orleans and Virginia, who made me laugh endlessly when we were all living in New York City in our twenties.
During this time, I got dressed for the first time in nine months. I cautiously approached the non-clothing section of my closet and chose a bright blouse that was decidedly fluffy. I approached my hair situation. It had grown so long that I regularly hit it in a ponytail. I was starting to relate to those vintage English women who pinned their long hair up into braids – I thought they didn’t get their hair cut either. I smoothed mine out with a flat iron, brushed off blush and even lipstick (we’d be maskless!) And my best jewelry. Asleep, I went down to the home office, dizzy from sitting next to my husband in front of so many of my favorite people.
In a way, it was more intimate than a party in person. Instead of taking a few minutes to mingle with your guests, Zoom Party takes away the distractions (if you can forget to see each other), leaving each of us face to face in our “Brady Bunch” boxes. The team’s meeting rooms during the trivia game replicated the feel of a side conversation at a big party. Once the game was over, the guests stuck around, naturally creeping into a long afterparty.
My birthday party was particularly well suited to Zoom. But we’ve seen so many incarnations of virtual events that have brought joy to life in ways we couldn’t have anticipated.
In some cases, this has allowed us to develop new traditions. For the past year, we’ve hosted a Zoom Candle with the extended family every Friday night to mark the Jewish Sabbath. A custom we previously practiced on our own, the weekly callings were born out of a new tradition that deepens the bonds between us as parents share the ups and downs of their week and witness the growth of our children, one of which performs songs he learned at school. (Again, captive audience.)
It also made it possible to reinvent old traditions. No one dreams of a Zoom wedding or a retirement party, of course. But as these opportunities have gone virtual over the past year, we have discovered the miracle of time travel. Guests thousands of miles away can witness what they might have missed and add life to an occasion.
What is curious about this new way of doing things is that it has been available for a long time. We just didn’t see the door until the windows were closed. Now, once life returns to a semblance of what it used to be, will we remember to open it? Or zoom directly?