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Dispatches from home

Why Zoom cocktails with friends is the salve we all need right now

Video conferencing has long helped us stay in touch with family and make remote work easier. But as we’re stuck at home, it can also help us reconnect with old friends, a bright spot in the new normal.

In this March 16, 2020 photo, a laptop in Nashville showed people gathering online for a virtual happy hour amid the new coronavirus pandemic.
In this March 16, 2020 photo, a laptop in Nashville showed people gathering online for a virtual happy hour amid the new coronavirus pandemic.Jamie Lee Finch/Associated Press

My college friends and I joke that we’ve never finished a conversation. We don’t see each other often, and when we do, our meet-ups take on a frenzied quality. There’s so much ground to cover, and only a few hours together, so topics bleed into one another, a new one beginning before we notice we’ve left the last one behind. There’s never enough time.

When a pandemic hits, it turns out, there’s nothing but time. At least that’s the case for those of us fortunate enough to ride out this terrible thing from the comfort of home.

So late the other night, this group of women did what clusters of friends on social media the world over have been doing this week: We flipped on our computers, grabbed a glass of wine, and gathered on a Zoom call to catch up, five old friends in the grid of faces that’s quickly becoming part of a new normal.

Staring across the Internet at a crowd for the first time can feel distinctly awkward, even when you’ve known them for two decades. But give it a few minutes and the stiffness falls away, replaced by the easy rhythm that has carried you -- and us -- through years of friendship. This time, though, there were no babysitters to rush home to, no apologies about waiting so long to reconvene.

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We made fun of the bad lighting and someone’s outfit and ribbed the friend who’d gone to the trouble of adding a filter for a ridiculous sun-kissed effect. Full disclosure: That friend was me. It had been a long week in the news business.

From my safe little box on the screen at 9 p.m., I felt myself exhale, really exhale, for the first time in days.

What else did we cover? Nothing and everything, the same things we all talk about with our oldest friends (though you wouldn’t be wrong if you thought it devolved into confessions that most of us, improbably, are watching Love is Blind on Netflix. No judgment, please).

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With each belly laugh, I felt my shoulders relax a little more. A good conversation can't fix the world right now and I wouldn't want to suggest it could. But it can be a salve.

Since then, I’ve seen so many people post that they too did a virtual happy hour with friends they never find enough time to see. It made them feel lighter, they said, in a week when not much does.

Connecting over technology is hardly novel. My toddler FaceTimes with my parents nearly every night. She hears the familiar chirping of the ring and screeches with delight, “Granddad’s here!” and then tries to feed him Goldfish crackers through the glass screen.

And long before coronavirus, Zoom had been a familiar part of our daily professional routine, as remote work became more standard across a variety of industries.

But old friends are different. As lives and geography separate us, we don’t often use this technology to connect with them, instead letting our relationships play out on group text threads and those frenetic, every-few-months get-togethers, marked by one too many rounds and a promise to do it more often. We never do.

These people are the ones who have seen us through all the life moments, the overblown ones when you’re young and don’t know better, the very real ones as you marry off and move towards middle age. Ours is a position of relative privilege, it bears mentioning. Still, my little group has navigated divorce, cancer (twice), infertility, career defeats, step-parenting, and a host of lesser crises, most of them before we hit 40.

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When, as a fresh college graduate en route to my first job, I stepped out of the New York City subway in downtown Manhattan on a bright Tuesday nearly 20 years ago to see the second plane hit the World Trade Center, these were the women who sent frantic e-mails assuring me it was going to be OK. It wasn’t, of course. But also it was.

Call your friends. The old ones who remember you at your worst, the newer ones who’ve seen you through more recent seasons, the quirky ones you’re always meaning to reach out to, but never quite do. It’s a good reminder that things change, and yet they don’t.

If there’s any bright spot in all this staying home — and with the state of the world right now, I hesitate to call anything bright — it’s that we’re forced to hit the pause button on our hectic lives. With no trains to catch or pickups to be done, we have what we’ve been lamenting there’s never enough of: time.

I’d like to think this Zoom social culture will be just another moment, something we’ll look back on with a mix of relief and perspective. In the meantime, see you next Saturday night on the computer, girls. And yes, I’ll have the filter on.

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Cynthia Needham can be reached at cynthia.needham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @cynthianeedham.