By Elizabeth Dunlop Richter
Social distancing, self-quarantine, shelter-in-place, canceled sporting events, online concerts, Netflix…wash your hands! We’re all surrounded by restrictions and advice to help us avoid the dreaded COVID-19 virus, so how are Chicagoans injecting some levity into their lives? Voila! The virtual cocktail party!
The good news amidst the 2020 arrival of this virus: we have new ways of connecting with each other thanks to the Internet and communication technology. Using FaceTime, Skype, Google Hangout, WhatsApp, Zoom, and other platforms, Chicagoans are refusing to let themselves be separated from their friends, even if the connection is electronic.
The key to success is to be intentional about an invitation to connect online. Not just a “hello, how are you” on the fly, but a real cocktail hour. So, first set the time — 5:30, 6:00, 6:30, 7:00 p.m., whatever works, depending on the time zones of the participants. One needs time to change out of one’s workout clothes (or pajamas!) into something one would wear to a real cocktail party.
Since the host can’t serve the cocktails or hors d’oeuvres directly to guests, one need only please oneself. Why not treat oneself to something special?
Gold coast residents Brian White and Jim Kinney are consummate entertainers and during the shelter-in-place orders, they saw no reason to change their habits.
White explained, “First, Jim and I wanted to throw a cocktail party for two.” They served themselves shrimp on a silver tray and wine and gin (Nolet’s – White’s new favorite) and tonics in crystal glasses. They liked it so much that they began calling friends to join them later in the week. They easily went through 3 bottles of wine. “Having something to look forward to and getting dressed up for is great,” White enthused. “I’ve been in boxer shorts for the past two weeks. [It’s great to] actually see your friends, have a cocktail with your friends, and have conversations as a little group.”
White realized that a much more ambitious cocktail party was possible. Working with the New York chapter of the Social Register, he organized a virtual cocktail party for over 40 participants on Zoom. “It was a blast. It worked out really well. People got dressed up, they had their cocktails,” White reported and described the format, “We made introductions first …then we picked a topic, like “What’s your favorite Netflix show?” … We’d ask people what the highlight of their day was. I said having a reason to put my contact lenses in – out of vanity since people would see me…” Brian feels that the party was a great success. “I had a hangover so it had to be a good party.” Chris Wolf, Chairman of the Social register Association agreed, “Social Register members enjoyed our first four digital gatherings in Chicago, and now more are planned around the country. It’s the first step for our strong network to meaningfully help fellow SR members and others navigate through a worrisome time. We care about each other and the world around us. Not to rest on his virtual laurels, White is planning his next event, a Mexican margarita party…in costume!
Outgoing President and CEO of The Chicago Network, Kate Bensen has left her downtown Chicago apartment to work from her Woodland Shores home in Bridgeman, MI. She’s an old hand at virtual cocktail parties. “I started with my team [four staff members]…the rule was you could not talk about work.” She particularly likes the ability to see people in their own environment. “You get to see what art people have hanging on the wall and it’s a nice light touch.” Unable to visit with her Michigan neighbors, Bensen has been using Zoom to meet with 12 or so friends in the area. She’s also doing one-on-ones with Chicago friends. “I just learned that a good friend of mine has been taking piano lessons for 25 years and I didn’t know about it. “ Bensen points out that these conversations take on a new perspective, “One asks, what’s your life like or how are you spending your time,” questions one wouldn’t normally ask in a busy city life. And her beach community wardrobe? “I try to look presentable every day. The only day I was in my workout clothes, I was not that productive. I now get dressed and I’m more tuned in to my work.”
Old Town resident Sophie Bross decided a simple drink would not do to catch up with her friend John Mark Horton, a University of Chicago graduate and interior designer based in Los Angeles. Cocktails plus dinner were required. Taking into consideration the time difference, she set an 8:00 p.m. start time. Dinner for her was “surf and turf” delivered from Maple and Ash. Horton, an expert in restoring the interiors of Rudolph Schinder homes, chose lamb chops. Bross opened a bottle of wine and said they ate and talked for over 2 hours. “I set up my iPad on the dining room table. It was just the two of us and it was almost as good as the real thing. We both got dressed as if we were going out!”
Unfortunately, technology sometimes fails us. Sally Sprowl, executive director of Glencoe Chamber of Commerce, was part of a group effort to connect. “I have a group of friends, one in Idaho, one in Texas, one in South Carolina, and one in Maryland and some in Chicago. Several have birthdays in March. One of the group thought we should raise a glass of wine to toast the March celebrants. For some reason, it didn’t come through on my phone. But we plan to try again in June.” The technology is great…until it’s not.
Many people, of course, prefer seltzer and other drinks to alcohol and celebrate online as well. Chicago’s Alcoholics Anonymous chapter does not let the ban on in-person gatherings stand in the way of its members connecting. A long-time member reports that meetings, once held only in person, are now online, permitting members who have moved away or are out of town to connect once again, yes – through Zoom. “We might have up to 50 people sign in to a virtual meeting,” he told me,” and it really feels more like a cocktail party with people chatting and reconnecting with old friends than our traditional in-person meetings.”
And connecting is after all the purpose of any cocktail party. It’s time to make it a special occasion. Get out the silver tray; set up the crystal glasses, get out of your sweats and t-shirt. Or… embrace the cocoon and get out the beer and soda. And maybe put on some clean sweats!