Celebrating a Birthday – via Zoom

By Deborah Frieden


It was time for my first social distancing Happy Hour. On the block where I live, in Oakland, California, my neighbors stepped out onto their porches or front yards with a drink and we all toasted each other from a safe distance. My husband and I live at the bottom of a hill. So when we stepped outside we couldn’t see anyone. Still holding our French 75 cocktails, we emailed our neighbors that we were outside. Seconds later, one replied – just walk up the hill, we are here!

Since then other small moments of connection and generosity have occurred – calls from distant friends, a visit from a neighbor checking in on us (standing ten feet apart on our deck) and the forming of a neighborhood email list to provide help to anyone in need. Tonight, we are holding a virtual birthday party for my husband with friends who had otherwise intended to throw him a party. We will convene over Zoom with drinks in hand so we can see one another despite my aversion to how the computer camera seems to age me worse than in real life! Small gestures are now big things in our lives.

“We are simultaneously in need of news and yet unable to take one more minute of it all.”

We have been at home for 12 days now, although it was only 4 days ago that Governor Gavin Newsom put the “shelter in place order” into effect for all Californians. This means Californians must stay at home except for essential trips like grocery or pharmacy shopping, medical help or other necessary activity. Yesterday was a glorious spring day and we took a walk through the neighborhood to see all the gorgeous flowers in bloom – it seemed like an ordinary weekend, except we crossed the street every time someone came toward us. There remains a surreal quality to it all – everything looks normal except for how quiet it is on normally busy streets. Getting out for exercise and fresh air is helping a lot to keep our spirits up, but the rain is returning so we’ll have some gloomy days coming up.

Shopping is very much an issue…what’s safe and what’s not? Picture a bumper car game, but now the objective is to stay as far apart as possible when traffic is coming from all directions. This was us this past weekend, when my daughter Adrienne (33) and I braved our local farmers’ market to obtain some fresh food. Weirdly only the young people were wearing masks. We could only wonder what that was about, as my daughter helped steer me away from busy stalls or the inevitable oblivious wanderer.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf had asked the markets to stay open to support our small farmers, but also to make fresh produce available when the grocery stores’ shelves were often bare. I bought an armload of tulips in season now since I don’t know if the small family farmer will be able to stay in business. Since then though, we are no longer even going out to shop and are using online purchasing.

“My daughter scored toilet paper at her local market and gave it to my husband for his birthday.”

Ordering food is a game of chance too. Deliveries get postponed for no apparent reason but then when they do come, you get a quarter of the order and it is always the most random set of items, rarely the basics. Today two tubes of toothpaste, a jar of peanut butter and a bottle of rice vinegar arrived at my doorstep – what will I do with these? Supposedly, the flour, oatmeal, milk and butter will come later… but no mention of the meat. There is still almost no toilet paper anywhere, although my daughter scored a 12-pack at her local corner market and gave it to my husband for his birthday. Fortunately he appreciated the ironic humor of her gesture. That said, there is a lot of food coming into the city and the delivery networks are ramping up, so we expect things to improve shortly.

Finally, I must say something about the TV. We are simultaneously in need of news and information and yet unable to take one more minute of it all. Many of us have substituted the ‘news’ sent by friends as we sit at our computers hoping to work but distracted by a sense of restlessness, curiosity, and an overwhelming need to know what our friends and family are doing. Which brings me back to where I started…the small things mean a lot right now.


Deborah Frieden lives in Oakland, California. She is a cultural project planning consultant assisting organizations and municipalities in planning for the creation of new museums, cultural centers, district initiatives or the re-envisioning of existing institutions. Her work is national as well as international and goes beyond the walls of the institutions and explores the contextual issues of cultural organizations in their specific communities, who they serve, and how their development will enhance their community. In 2006, Deborah was awarded the prestigious Loeb Fellowship at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design in recognition of her work. She spent a year in residence in 2006-7 and is currently serving on the Alumni Council.