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Turning 21 On Zoom: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Embrace The Insanity

Editor in Chief Isabel Sepúlveda is a real adult with a newly minted alcohol license. She wasn’t going to let a little thing like quarantine stop her from celebrating that with her friends.

It’s Aries season (until the end of the day today) and you know what that means: the start of the astrological calendar (whatever that means) and more importantly, my birthday. That’s right; on April 8, 1999, I was born in a Pennsylvania hospital, in a small where 21 years later, I still live with my family.

I’ve retreated to that small town to ride out the self-isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic with the people I love. I know I’m lucky: a roof over my head, work-study paychecks still coming in, a fast internet connection and friends willing to screw around with me on Google Hangouts for a couple of hours every week. But even the luckiest among us are still mourning something: Bacchanal and Orgo Night and V-Show and Midnight Breakfast and all the other traditions we won’t get to experience, all the friends who will graduate that we may never see again, the future we thought we were emerging into. Yes, there are more important things to worry about right now, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be room for these smaller losses as well.

For me, I focused the immensity of my grief and fear about what’s going on in the world onto a more tangible loss: the 21st birthday party I was going to throw with my best friend. She was one of my first friends at Columbia, my sophomore year roommate, someone who I have so much in common with that it feels kind of unreal sometimes despite her being an engineer to my English major. We were also born less than a week apart—I’m older, which is very important for you to know—so it only made sense that we should celebrate our birthday together. We’ve done so in small ways the past two years: taking one another out for breakfast or dinner, watching a movie. Sophomore year, I attempted to throw her a party but our Schapiro double wouldn’t have been able to handle my Big Dreams and finals always manage to creep up without me quite realizing it. This year was going to be different.

And it was. We’d been planning vaguely since September, trying to figure out how to avoid inviting our closest friends to indulge in our first alcoholic beverage ever (because drinking before you’re legal is a crime and also a sin of which I have never partaken, obviously) in my 92-square-foot Harmony single. At the beginning of March, things were finally starting to fall into place; we were going to ask a mutual friend if we could borrow their room and if not, settle for something smaller but no less lit in her Watt studio double. And then, of course, (gestures vaguely at the world around us). I went back to Pennsylvania, she went back to Mississippi and it seemed like that would be that. I was heartbroken, but I knew we were doing what we had to do to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe from a deadly disease.

But we are Columbia students, and that means neither of us are easily thwarted. Also, let’s be honest, both of us found ourselves with a ton of extra free time on our hands even before I gave up on completing my schoolwork for the semester entirely. So after a week or two to lick our wounds, we decided to put our heads together and see if we could come up with a way to still be with one another and our friends to make our birthday special.

The answer, of course, was obvious: host the Zoom birthday to end all Zoom birthday parties.

It solved several issues we had discovered in our initial planning stages. Thanks to Bwog’s Zoom Pro license, we wouldn’t have to worry about the party getting shut down by the Powers That Be (either our dorm RAs or Zoom’s 40-minute free time limit) and we could invite as many people as we wanted. Friends from days of high school past could celebrate alongside Columbia friends without breaking the fire code. We wouldn’t have to pay out the ass for alcohol and mixers to keep our guests fed and watered. Underage friends could stay the whole time, drinking whatever they want, and not have to head home while all the legal lads went off to a bar of some kind.

Of course, some new issues emerged, as plenty of others have discovered when they try to move their events to the Zoomosphere. Time zones! Who wants to get drunk at 4 pm to join their East Coast friends in revelry? What can you do at a 21st birthday party when you’re not in the same physical space? I’m sure online Pong exists but what’s the point if you can’t experience the blow-by-blow while avoiding the splash zone? Can you play Never Have I Ever with 180+ guests, even if only a fourth of them show up? How can I obtain alcohol when liquor stores aren’t considered an essential service and Pennsylvania’s draconian blue laws mean you can’t just run to Morton Williams for a six-pack?

Solving those issues was somehow much easier and more difficult than we anticipated. My mother, champion that she is, drove over state lines to Ohio with her boss to pick something up, and luckily had the opportunity to swing by their liquor store on her way home. She’s the true hero of this story; if you’ve ever been to Ohio, you’d understand. We scheduled the event for a bit later in the evening Eastern Standard Time, enough that even West Coast (worst coast, don’t @ me) friends could pop by for a minute or two to have fun.

Should you be considering throwing your own Zoom birthday banger upon reading this, take note. You won’t be able to play drinking games. I’m sorry but no matter how many Google Docs you make or how many times you try to explain the rules, people will keep coming in and out, audio will fuck up, and so on. You’ll just find yourself explaining over and over again without ever actually being able to announce that you never ever have taken a shot while under the age of 21. It’s simply too chaotic for that.

My friend and I had agreed early on that we’d just go with the flow, and if I can give you one piece of advice for throwing your own Zoom party (birthday or otherwise) that’s exactly what you have to do. This is a strange, ridiculous time to exist on planet Earth, let alone try to host something as mundane as a birthday party. You understand that; trust that your friends will too. If that means you want to ignore my advice to try playing “King’s Cup” with a virtual deck or pretend you’re sitting in a circle (order established via shared Google Doc) and take a crack at “Never Have I Ever” go for it. It might not work, but maybe it will, and even if it doesn’t you’ll have a great time laughing at your attempt.

After our failed attempt at establishing some kind of order for our drinking shenanigans, we decided it’d probably be best for the 30 or so people who seemed like they were sticking around to watch a movie together. Another quick note for those playing along at home: don’t try to get 30 people to agree on a film together. It won’t happen. Most of us can’t decide what we want to watch on TV without taking a Bwog quiz (or, I guess, most people use Buzzfeed) or using an algorithm to decide. Solicit suggestions and then exercise your power as host to make the ultimate decision. We decided on Clue, which I drunkenly purchased on YouTube before I realized our Silicon Valley overlords have made it nigh on impossible to stream movies without committing acts of piracy or downloading third-party software. (I’d still recommend it. Clue is a delight and stars Tim Curry!)

Being forced to change our plans on the fly, we truly regressed back into our “back at home” Childhood 2.0 selves and put on The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl. It’s a ridiculous 2005 nostalgia trip which features George Lopez as a giant screen man named Mr. Electricidad (I guess I appreciate the Latinx representation?), a small boy obsessed with his dream journal, and a pre-Twilight Taylor Lautner with some concerning dental problems. It’s absolutely ridiculous and makes next to no sense, perfect viewing material for a world that seems to grow more ridiculous and senseless by the day. We used Netflix Party, which I recommend (provided everyone in your friend group has access to Netflix) because it’s relatively easy and intuitive to download and use for those who haven’t been exposed to it before. The on-screen chat function provides plenty of laughs, but you can also leave your Zoom call open to share your opinions loudly and vocally, as I did. We made a drinking game, taking a sip every time someone says dream (which happens over 100 times in the film) but mostly we just drank whenever we felt like it. We quickly dissolved into giggles at the bad CGI, stiff acting, and obvious foreshadowing. It’s kind of like Wizard of Oz for Gen Z, but without scary flying monkies or redeemable acting abilities. It brought me back to my elementary school days by the end of the first scene.

I don’t remember much of the movie, or the end of the party in general (I woke up on the couch at 6:30 the next morning with a headache and the reassurance that I’m a lightweight when it comes to liquor). What I do remember, however, was being enveloped in warmth and love that had nothing to do with the three rum and cokes I consumed throughout the night. Friends from both our high school days fell in seamlessly with Bwoggers, marching band geeks, and my friend’s SEAS colleagues, laughing like they’d known each other longer than a handful of hours. We came up with inside jokes about the fifth-grade protagonist’s dream obsession, Lavagirl’s unfortunate smile, and the Quentin Tarantino cinematic universe. After it ended, we decided to try to play “Never Have I Ever” apparently. I’m not sure how that went, to be frank. I do know I told everyone I loved them countless times and felt their love in return.

It could have been horrible. We all knew it. I was terrified for days leading up to it that no one would have fun and we’d feel like failures on our own birthday! But by leaning into the sheer ridiculousness of celebrating a birthday while we’re scattered around the world, we somehow managed to create something great in its own right. Sure it’s not the rager we imagined: thumping music, bodies pressed together on the dance floor, and going out into the city we’ve decided to make the canvas for our college years. That can’t happen for a long time yet. This is a good substitute in the meantime.

But next year, or whenever we put on real pants and head back to campus, you’d best bet I’m going to throw a birthday rager in my Watt suite that all but burns the building down.

happy birthday to me! via Bwog Archive

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3 Comments

  • Sutton ~token seas friend says:

    @Sutton ~token seas friend Love you, Isabel! I’m going to throw us the best 21.5st (is that even the ending there? -rd, -th? I’m really not sure) if it kills me

  • Sutton ~token seas friend says:

    @Sutton ~token seas friend Love you Isabel! We’re gonna have the Best 21.5st (what actually is the ending to that? Really not sure) if it kills me

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous This is a heartwarming article Keanu! -Madelyn

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