Coronavirus shutdown gives Sonoma County residents time to learn new skills

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A comment from her son launched Kathy Larsen on a crazed course of making crazy quilt tops, 14 of them to be exact.

“Gosh,” he mused, “someday people are going to ask us what we did during the coronavirus lockdown, and I don’t want to have to tell them I binge-watched on Netflix.”

That got Larsen, a retired principle of Penngrove School, pondering: which new challenge could she take on with all that time sequestered at home?

A devoted seamstress, she thought about all the leftover fabric she had been hoarding for years and it hit her. She could learn to make crazy quilt squares and turn them into “Pandemic Pillows” for friends and family. So she consulted some YouTube videos and set to work at her machine.

“I did not want to wake up when we are free again and think, ‘What did I do with all that time?’ ” the Sonoma woman said.

With stores and restaurants closed, all social gatherings and community cultural activities called off and entertainment attractions shut down, people around the world have been forced to find new ways to amuse themselves.

For many, like Larsen, the pandemic posed an opportunity to learn something new or hone a skill they tried or abandoned long ago.

History is full of such inspiration. William Shakespeare composed his tragedy “King Lear” when London theaters shut down due to the 1606 plague. Decades later, during a bubonic plague lockdown, Cambridge student Isaac Newton began cooking up his Theory of Relativity. And Florentine writer Giovanni Boccaccio fled an outbreak of the bubonic plague that killed his father and stepmother by hiding out in the Tuscan countryside. While there, he produced The Decameron, a series of novellas framed as stories a group of friends tell each other while quarantined from the plague.

While not quite in that league, North Bay residents with idle time have been busying themselves learning everything from spinning to watercolor painting, furniture design to needlepoint.

Larsen learned how to piece together a crazy quilt pattern.

“Crazy quilts are forgiving,” she said. “It doesn’t demand precision, which is fine with me. And once I got the hang of it, I got more creative.”

Other than mailing away for the pillows’ filling, she had all the material on hand: pieces from dresses she made for her daughter when she was little or remnants from special sewing projects over the years.

“They carry memories and you go through them and they remind you of different people and different events,” she said. Probably the most touching were the pillow tops she made from her late husband’s old ties. She plans to keep those. The rest, she said, will be Christmas gifts.

“I’m so used to hurrying, like I have to be somewhere,” she said. “So often now I think I don’t really need to be anywhere. It can be really freeing to think I can just focus on this and not worry about being late or missing something.”

Fruit, veggie animals

A couple of months ago Kim Alvarez of Rohnert Park was entertaining herself with some online quizzes that challenged her to identify animals carved out of food. She was fascinated and figured carving creatures out of fruits and vegetables was something she could learn to do, particularly with so much time on her hands. And there was a certain young son of a friend who she thought would be amused by it. She started with an eggplant penguin and the hobby snowballed into a menagerie. While she is a vegan, these are animals she has no problem eating.

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Alvarez, who works in the human resources department of Keysight, has continued to work full time during the quarantine. But she’s spent her off-work time on her budding craft, studying pictures online before tackling a new animal, like strawberry mice.

“I’ve made a toucan out of an avocado and a serrano pepper. I’m always looking for vegetables that lend themselves to animals,” she said. She couldn’t find a white sugar beet for a polar bear but made do with a turnip. Her favorite? A mango turtle, which she carved down to the intricate markings on its shell. Each creation takes about 20 minutes, and then they’re up for consumption.

“If it’s fruit sometimes I eat them raw. I ate my octopus banana today,” she said. “Now I’m making stew and my broccoli poodle is in it now.”

So far, only one animal eludes her — an eggplant whale.

“I just haven’t found the right-shaped eggplant yet,” she said. “But whatever you dream you can probably make it happen.”

Mastering the wheel

The lockdown has inspired a lot of people to take up old hobbies again and improve on their skills. Kathy Galvin of Santa Rosa learned to knit when she was 4 years old and has done it off and on all her life. She also learned to spin, but after moving to Santa Rosa in 2017 and being evacuated 10 days later due to Tubbs fire, she never got back to her wheel.

Now the shelter-in-place order has gifted her ample time to rediscover her love of spinning fiber. She set up her small pocket wheel, which weights only 6 pounds, on her front porch and spun some dark purple merino wool for a kimono-style sweater she has dreamed of knitting for years. The additional time spent at the wheel has allowed her to improve her spinning.

“What this quarantine has done for me is slowed me down. It’s given me the time and the incentive to be particular about how I spend whatever time I have left,” said the retired technical writer. Another advantage is that from her porch she has a broad view of the neighborhood.

“With the quarantine a lot of people are walking a lot more and people walk by and see what I’m doing and we can have a conversation at a distance,” she said. “I’ve gotten to know neighbors I never even ran across before.”

Back to the piano

Carol Castillo grew up surrounded by pianos. Her father refinished them and, at one point, there were four in the house. She took lessons as a child but didn’t stay with it. The former medical director at Sonoma Developmental Center thought she could come back to it when she stopped working full time several years ago, but she never did, until the stay-at-home order took effect.

“I still do some consulting and I teach CPR and I do a lot of volunteering at our daughter’s school,” said Castillo, a family practice doctor by training. “Then everything stopped and I thought, ‘I don’t have an excuse now.’ ”

Her teenage daughter has been playing piano for years. So Castillo found, among a stack of music books, a beginner’s book for adults.

“I opened it up at page one and started at the very beginning, taking myself through it. And I found this man on YouTube has videos teaching from the exact same book. I could do it page by page. Some of the things I could do on my own and some I couldn’t do right and had to cue him up.”

After more than two months she is on page 60 and is playing with both hands.

Her husband has been encouraging, which keeps her on track. Castillo figures she’s gone far enough that when the world once again opens up, she will stay with her musical hobby.

“I think it would be a shame if we came out of this shelter in place not having found good things,” she said. “We miss the lesson if we just want to rush back to how things were.”

A forgotten language

As an English graduate student many years ago, Lori Barron dreamed of learning Old English so she could read Beowulf and other seminal medieval writings in their original form. That yearning resurfaced, and just before the shelter-in-place order began in March she ordered a book, “Teach Yourself Old English.” For the past two months she’s spent a few mornings a week listening to an accompanying CD and studying the lessons in the book. Old English or Anglo Saxon is the earliest form of English; it was spoken in the early Middle Ages.

She’s learning new words for her vocabulary: “gir” is “spear,” “tir” is “glory” and “mona” is “moon.”

“How comforting it is to curl up in a chair, make vocabulary flash cards and quiz myself on them, an activity I have total control over, unlike the current crisis,” said Barron, a Sonoma resident who recently retired after many years teaching in The Writing Center at Napa College.

“Studying this beautiful, musical language from a thousand years ago takes me away from my present worries but also gives me a sense of connection to the people of those times, who had anxieties of their own.”

She expects to stay with it even with the world opens up again, although maybe at a slower pace. She has progressed only through chapter three of a 20-chapter book. But without distractions, she has time to focus.

“One of the parts I enjoy most is pronunciation. And having these audio CDs, I listen over and over. I make notes and practice. I love that.”

Music video revival

Former Windsor Mayor Mark Millan has a secret. In his 20s he was heavily into music and worked in recording studios, producing records for groups like The Robots — his brother Gary’s band — and doing background music for radio and TV commercials.

As a kid he played piano and guitar, but his real love was and remains studio production work. He now heads a company called Date Instincts that consults with public agencies to promote water and recycled water projects.

But after struggling to stay busy under quarantine — “I’ve cleaned by garage three times,” he said — he decided to reconnect with his love for music production.

“I’ve been exploring creating music videos,” he said. “I have been learning DaVinci Resolve video software and working on a couple of music videos.”

It’s something he’s long wanted to do but just didn’t have the time for, with a job that puts him constantly on the road.

Using footage and stills in the public domain and that he shot himself, Millan has been creating a music video to the piece “Dusk Not Doom” written by brother Gary and his son Eddie Francis. They recorded it about 15 years ago, with Millan playing and singing background vocals. He also produced it.

The song is relevant now.

“It fits with the times. People are scared, yet hopeful,” he said.

The video software is challenging to master but he’s learning more technical tricks like fading in and out.

“But I’m not in a rush,” he said, “because I’ve got plenty of time. I’m waiting for a vaccine like everyone else.”

When he’s done he will post the video on YouTube and CD Baby. He said it’s OK even if it’s only seen by the handful of people who had a part in it. “It will be meaningful.”

Design a record console

Peter Takacs found an outlet for his restless energy in furniture design. He has a huge record collection from the 1960s and ’70s. So with his extra time, he decided to buy a furniture design program, “Sketch Up,” and learn to design his own console to contain his treasures. He wanted something to fit in with his other midcentury modern furnishings.

Takacs has learned enough to complete a design and build a prototype out of scrap wood. Next, he’ll embark on a finished piece.

“I’ve always been a designer. I did my house,” said Takacs, who lives in Santa Rosa and worked in advertising and real estate. “As a retiree there are two things that are really important. One is being physical so you don’t suffer from atrophy. And the other is learning something new to stimulate the brain. As I age these are things you don’t want to lose. It’s easy to slip away.”

His next step is to drive down to a supplier in Berkeley and select the wood, probably teak, he’ll use to build his forever piece.

“I think once we come through this, I’ll continue along this path to building the next piece of furniture. I don’t think I’ll ever evolve to building something for somebody else, but I do enjoy the time doing it.”

Coronavirus crochet

Debbie Berry always has loved hobbies that involve needles, like needlepoint and cross-stitching. But she hadn’t learned to crochet, until the coronavirus hit.

Before she retired Berry had signed up for a “block of the month club.” Every month she received instructions and a video to crochet three blocks that would ultimately become part of a 30-block afghan. She never got around to doing it.

The pandemic has been the perfect time to pick up her needles and teach herself.

“Some of the stitches have been a little challenging, and it’s hard not being able to ask a question while you’re watching the videos,” she said.

“It takes a little longer. I may have to go through it again to figure it out. But hopefully after all this is done, I can still take a class to fine-tune what I’ve learned.”

So far she has knocked off 18 squares, with 12 to go before she has enough for an afghan. The Santa Rosa resident thinks it looks pretty good for a first-time effort. And like many people grappling with the isolation and uncertainty of the past two months, she’s found it helpful to have a hobby.

“Anything to keep the hands busy, as well as the mind,” said Berry, who crochets while watching DVDs or listening to audio books. “Once you learn a stitch you can tune out and just go with it. It’s very relaxing.”

Staff Writer Meg McConahey can be reached at 707-521-5204 or

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