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A virtual "cheers!" with friends. Courtesy photo
Cheers! North County Columns

Cheers! North County: The new (virtual) happy hour

“Are you going to wear that shirt? We’re gonna be late,” my wife says, coming out of the bathroom where she has been doing her hair. I’m still working on a project for work that got away from me and wearing the clothes I woke up in.

“Late for what?” I ask. It feels like a valid question considering we’ve been staying home since mid-March.

“We have happy hour with Nate and Erin in a few minutes,” she replies, and I remember.

“I’ve got to finish this. I’ll meet you guys in a bit. It won’t take long,” I reply, and she leaves the room. While I finish what I’m doing, I hear the creak of her older laptop opening, and the hellos, and the laughter of our friends’ kids in the background.

The rise of video chat software — Zoom, FaceTime, Google Hangouts, Messenger, Skype — has enabled us to connect socially in ways that weren’t as ubiquitous just a few months ago, when we could actually go to a happy hour but often didn’t. It’s not that my wife and I didn’t enjoy happy hour then or meeting friends or drinking, it was just hard to find the right time, right place or right mood. When an invite came along, “It’s not you, it’s us” often applied.

Nationwide safer-at-home orders and business closures changed all that. Now we’re at home along with many of our family, friends and colleagues. Beer, wine and booze can be delivered, and nothing makes life feel more normal than having a drink with some friends. It started with an exploratory Zoom chat with the parents. More worried check-in than anything, but it spiraled quickly. Soon we were reconnecting with friends locally and across the country. Then extended family members. Now we have standing weekly meet-ups with a variety of friends and family. Color-coded invites fill my Google Calendar, and our intake of alcohol has gone up significantly.

Before COVID (BC), my wife would interact with dozens of colleagues at work every day. Even working from home, I would have my regular interactions at the coffee shop, picking up groceries for dinner, with the neighbors and even the woman from USPS who delivers the mail. Seemingly throwaway interactions that all added up to keeping us a level of sane (arguably) that was an important part of the day. Then one day in mid-March my wife was told to stay home from work, and everything closed seemingly simultaneously.

Yet now we’re socially busier than ever.  We’re lucky to still have some work, and those throwaway interactions have been replaced by meetups with people we really care about. People who we always think of too late or live in different time zones from. Family we love, but don’t see very often. It’s as simple as putting on a clean shirt —well, a shirt —cracking a beer, opening the computer and smiling.

Actually, seeing people is important. I’m sure there are studies that prove it, but it doesn’t seem necessary to find them. We can feel it as we see their laugh lines crinkle, seeing them cry, smile and explain. Seeing kids run into, and out of, the screen, seeing what they are drinking—local craft beer for him, hard kombucha for her, whiskey for me, and virtually toasting each other has brought us closer together as friends and family. The seeing closes the distances between us.

We are participating in each other’s lives more than ever. None of this happens without video chat and a pandemic. For the first time in our adult lives, our family and friends have mostly all been home*, and often available. The shadow of COVID-19 is still there. It won’t be going away anytime soon, but yesterday I attended my grandpa’s 97th birthday via FaceTime. Tomorrow, my wife will get drinks with her co-workers after work, and later this week our standing couples date will be interrupted by their rambunctious, albeit hilarious, kids again, and ultimately we’ll tip our glasses to the screen before saying, “See you next week!” It isn’t the same as being there, but it is still being there.

If you’ve haven’t heard, the Cheers! North County podcast is now out in the world. Listen to my interviews with interesting people over a beer, coffee or cocktail Find it wherever you find great podcasts.

*If you’re an essential worker, you’re amazing, and thank you, thank you, thank you.