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Social isolation and stay-at-home orders drive some to learn new skills


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Judy Woodruff: In this difficult time, millions of Americans are finding themselves stuck at home.

As Jeffrey Brown reports, many have turned to new hobbies and do-it-yourself projects to pass the time and redirect their energy.

This story is part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: It's not your normal workout space. One by one, all that was familiar in Zach Skidmore's world was suddenly out of reach, furloughed from his job, unable to see his friends and extended family.

Zach Skidmore: I have a couple nephews, and a niece, really little. And I love them. I can't spend time with them right now.

Jeffrey Brown: The gym, where he spent much of his free time, was closed. But Skidmore did something that surprised no one more than himself. He built his own.

Zach Skidmore: I just kind of got an idea that I could at least make a bench. So, I grabbed the chain saw. And I actually never made anything with a chain saw before.

Some days were three hours. Some days were nine hours. And a couple days, I actually was working from when the sun came up until the sun came down.

Jeffrey Brown: He used big slabs of timber as weights, designed his own pulley system, constructed a treadmill from small rolling logs, good for his physical health, better, perhaps, for his psyche.

Zach Skidmore: I had expected myself to fail in making this gym. But I tried anyway, because I had the time, and it took my mind off of things.

Woman: Bringing this grounding, stabilizing energy.

Jeffrey Brown: New emotions, new experiences. People everywhere are struggling to cope.

Man: We just finished the third and final season of "Star Trek."

Jeffrey Brown: Watching old TV.

Woman: To boldly go where everyone has clearly gone before.

Jeffrey Brown: Sometimes through new hobbies, do-it-yourself projects, a whole variety of activities that often they have never before considered.

Lawrence Palinkas: When you are confined, there's less environmental stimulation to keep the mind engaged. There's less to do, unless you exercise creative responses to your situation.

Jeffrey Brown: Astronauts in space, researchers spending long periods at the South Pole.

Lawrence Palinkas, a medical anthropologist and professor at the University of Southern California, studies the impact of extreme isolation.

We may not be at those extremes, he says, but the way people fill their time now, taking on something new, can be similar.

Lawrence Palinkas: I remember one year, at the South Pole, for example, the crew decided to produce their own science fiction movie, their own variation of the classic sci-fi "The Thing," where they were chasing aliens.

Many of these projects and activities, which are designed to make use of time that they feel somewhat obligated to make use of because it's now available, can produce a great deal of positive results.

Jeffrey Brown: Positive results from negative emotions, as with Chicago teenagers Krishita Dutta and Lauren Tapper.

Krishita Dutta: I think that it started out with us feeling sort of overwhelmed with everything. We were just in shock, and we didn't know how -- what to turn that into.

Lauren Tapper: And I also felt a bit cheated, just because we'd always learned to leave it up to the adults, I guess, to deal with this and make sure this would never happen.

Jeffrey Brown: They also realized there was a whole world of teens who felt as they did, so Krishita and Lauren learned to code, and by the end of March launched COVID-TV, a Web site where young people around the world can share their quarantine experiences.

Lauren Tapper: It's really just an exciting and uniting experience, to know that someone in India is experiencing the same exact thing as me.

Jeffrey Brown: Of course, sometimes DIY is less global, more living room.

Bill Underwood: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: Sixty-two-year-old Bill Underwood of Fishers, Indiana, found himself at home and utterly bored.

Bill Underwood: When I had the carpet shampooer out, and I was shampooing the dining room, and it dawned on me that I had just done that about a week ago, that's when I realized I needed something else to do.


Jeffrey Brown: An avid golfer, he resolved to build his own nine-hole course.

Bill Underwood: This is the view from the tee box at the first hole.

Jeffrey Brown: Made of old sippy cups that winds around his living room, tucks up against a piano bench and a cat scratch pad.

He even studied the work of famed designer Pete Dye, the man behind some of the world's celebrated golf courses.

Bill Underwood: I'm sort of the Pete Dye of indoor golf courses now, I think.

Jeffrey Brown: All over the place, people taking up hobbies, painting, photography, learning to knit.

Woman: This is garter stitch, which is basically just we knit every row.

Jeffrey Brown: Or fly a drone. It's a great way to cope.

But Lawrence Palinkas also reminds us not to be too hard on ourselves in these anxious times. He points again to researchers in long-term isolation in Antarctica.

Lawrence Palinkas: People would come down to stations like the South Pole with the expectation that they were going to master a new language or study the principles of biomechanics or some other complex subject.

And after a couple of weeks, they lost interest and energy. And we would frequently counsel them not to feel guilty about it, because it was a natural process. Given the stress that is placed on us by isolation and confinement, we are going to feel fatigued over time. We are going to feel less motivated.

Jeffrey Brown: In other words, try something you have never had time to do, but also relax and be kind to yourself.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

Judy Woodruff: And now it's your turn to think of what you're going to do that nobody else can.

And tonight online, we introduce "America, Interrupted." It's a new original podcast series that looks at all of the ways the coronavirus pandemic is changing our communities, our jobs and life as we know it.

In our latest episode, hosted by William Brangham, we hear from front-line workers who have been handling outbreaks in more rural parts of the country, where hospitals were already struggling to stay open before the crisis hit.

You can listen on our Web site. That's, or you can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

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