Shelter-in-place and social isolation are two terms that were new to me but have become familiar phrases in the last few weeks. I’m a person who feels that every event can be a learning opportunity, including our current viral crisis.
In an earlier post, I explored my continued awareness that despite being an introvert, I need people in my life. The first few weeks of shelter-in-place were tough as the only real contacts that I had were with my immediate family, and they had their activities and interests. Julie was working, Kathryn was adjusting to life back in the USA, and Will and Grace were attending classes online.
I didn’t feel like doing much of anything, and I spent most of my energy trying to put together a survival plan for the family. Where could we get toilet paper? Did we have enough soap? How could I make DIY hand sanitizer and disinfectants? Emergency planning was all that I could do.
I was prevented from doing things that I loved as I was isolating indoors. I couldn’t go on a camping adventure with Violet, the campervan. I couldn’t take myself on a photography safari, and there wasn’t much to write about as my daily life had been reduced to the mundane.
One of my favorite retirement activities before the pandemic was hanging out with my friend, Tom. We have always gotten along well, and we saw each other often. We were keeping up with each other electronically, but for whatever reason, that wasn’t cutting it for me. I mentioned to Tom that I was feeling frustrated and bored, and he suggested that I stop by his backyard for a socially distant barbecue, which I did. I was surprised by how much better I felt with the addition of a little bit of normalcy.
Tom recently purchased an older townhome close to downtown Naperville that had never been updated. He planned to gut the place entirely and to reconfigure the interior into a more modern and efficient space. He was going to demolish the interior on his own to save funds for the actual remodel. Tom is an experienced contractor who knows the protocols for such a task; however, he is only one person. I was concerned that he would injure himself by tackling all aspects of this enormous job alone. I was determined to help, but my efforts were met by family concerns for my safety due to the coronavirus. I felt that their worries were unfounded as I would be wearing a respirator and gloves during the demolition process. Besides, I would take other precautions, like bringing my homemade hand sanitizer to the job site.
I knew that one of my primary functions would be as a photographer to document the process. We write a weekly construction blog, and photos always make the posts better. However, this would not reduce Tom’s chance of injury. Multitasking presented the most significant injury risk to my friend. He would be inherently safer if he could concentrate on a single task rather than trying to do everything by himself.
I have been hanging around construction sites for some time, and I am starting to get an understanding of the construction process. However, knowledge isn’t the same thing as skill.
During most of my life, I have been thrust into leadership positions. This is likely because I’m responsible, organized, and I have good problem-solving skills. As a physician, I was a chief resident, co-founder of a successful psychiatric practice, and served as a medical director in several positions. I am comfortable in leadership roles, but leadership was not needed here. I needed to be a follower, a gofer, a grunt. The most helpful thing that I could do for my friend was to become a day laborer.
Some of you may think that it is beneath a physician to do such things, but I disagree with this idea completely. I am many things beyond a doctor, and I feel that all honest work is honorable.
Tom’s townhouse is an easy walk from my home, and I have been going there in the mornings to do whatever was needed. I have pried tacking strips off of floors, taken countless loads of refuse to the dumpster, and even sawed through a pipe or two. My actions have allowed Tom to concentrate on methodically stripping the interior down to the studs.
My stated goal was to help my friend and to increase his safety. However, I also have benefited from my actions. I’m getting a little exercise, I have social contact, and I am continuing to learn by observation. Hosts on DIY TV shows often state how much fun it is to deconstruct before they construct something. Frankly, I think their statements are total crap. The process is physically challenging, filthy, and potentially dangerous. However, the method also serves as a classroom for an uninformed person, such as myself. Each layer of the interior has to be removed and properly disposed of. Appliances have to be recycled, ceilings and walls have to be cut away, insulation discarded, plumbing fixtures removed, and electrical connections isolated. Deconstructing a house is another way of learning how to construct a house, and I find that process very fascinating. By participating in the process, I have gotten a master’s class in home construction.
Soon tradespeople will descend on the property. Plumbers, electricians, carpenters, and others. I’ll help in whatever way that I can, but, likely, I’ll mostly be photographing and writing about the construction experience in Tom’s blog. However, after all of these years, I know most of Tom’s subcontractors, and they usually don’t mind my picture taking and obsessive questions.
When I first met Tom, he was surprised that I was always asking questions. “Why do you want to know that it is useless information to you?” He would ask. I would always respond that there was no such thing as useless information. Over the years, I have put to use some of that “useless” information, but for me, the process of learning is reason enough to learn.
I choose to be a competent human being. To me, that means that I am more than just a title or job description. I’m glad that I have had the training to adjust complicated pharmacological cocktails for schizophrenic patients. However, I’m also happy that I have the knowledge base to make a meal from scratch for my family, fix a friend’s computer, or put together a solar-powered electrical system for Violet the campervan. Each activity has worth, as does picking up clumps of insulation and tossing them into a dumpster. It gives me pleasure to think that in some small way, I am helping my friend. Every slab of wallboard that I chucked is one less that he had to do. To me, a friend is someone who is there for you when you need them. Tom has certainly been there for me, and I enjoy returning the favor.
During this terrible time, it is easy to feel sorry for ourselves. To think that we are being cheated, or put upon by the world. This is a perfect recipe for sadness. I would suggest that it is better to think about what you have instead of what you are missing. Extend yourself to someone else and try to be supportive of them. I’m not Mother Theresa. Yes, I feel that I’m helping a friend, but I’m also getting quite a bit in return from the interaction. The result of helping someone has made me happier. We live in a world of “me,” and with it, we see higher rates of depression, anxiety, and addiction. In my career, I saw individuals who were always looking for ways to feel better about themselves. They judged their happiness with their latest purchase. They would blame others for their unhappiness and take no responsibility for their own dysfunctional behaviors. These patients were almost impossible to help as they expected someone else to do their work. Their lives could have been transformed by taking some of their self-absorbed energy and “spending” it to make someone else’s burden lighter. During this crisis time, we all need to work together. There is strength in numbers; if we stand alone, we will become dust in the wind.
Tom’s construction blog post can be found at: HTTP://gizmohomecraft.com