People have developed an array of coping strategies for dealing with the uncertainty of the past two plus years — from new fitness habits to baking to art. Some may have started right after the initial lockdown and others a bit later.

Not being original, I started baking — breads, cookies, etc., but my family got sick of it, so I took up something that was less caloric and just for me — knitting. I am still very much a novice but appreciate the meditative actions of knitting and purling.

I suspected there was a broader context behind my need to bake and knit, and indeed there seems to be. As Ciara McCabe, Associate Professor, Neuroscience, University of Reading (UK) put it in an article for The Conversation newsletter: “Finding time for your interests and pleasures — such as a hobby — during lockdown could be one way of avoiding [depression]…When we take part in a hobby that we enjoy, chemical messengers in the brain (known as neurotransmitters) are released — such as dopamine, a chemical which helps us feel pleasure. These feel-good chemicals can then make us want to do the hobby again, and feel more motivated to do so.”

That made perfect sense for me, but I was inspired to check in with others — especially after seeing a post on LinkedIn from Corey DuBrowa, VP, Global Communications and Public Affairs, Google/Alphabet. In an eloquent and beautiful post late last year, Corey paid tribute to Jay Porter, an influential friend who passed away, weaving in how he managed this stressful and uncertain time of COVID-19:

“I’ve posted here previously about the amazing, late, great Jay Porter. For those of us who knew/loved him, he’s still a living and breathing presence in our lives…I picked up a little hobby during the pandemic, which came to an end last night. I hadn’t DJ’d properly since the ‘90s…For the past two years I’ve had an every-other-Thursday show on KXSF here in SF called the BYOB Show — Bring Yer Own Beats. 35 shows down the line — plus subbing stints, and my contribution as part of a five-DJ collective doing alt country on a rotating show called the Barndance — it felt like a good time to wrap it up. And I couldn’t imagine any other way to do it than to pay musical tribute to my enthusiastic-but-awful global karaoke partner, Non-Famous Jay…I hope you enjoy listening to this podcast as much as I did spinning it. Yers, the artist formerly known as DJ 3D.”

Intrigued by a side of Corey that few may be familiar with, I wanted to see what others may have done to relieve pressure.

I asked more than 400 senior communications executives how they passed the time or otherwise expanded their horizons during the pandemic. Their answers ran the gamut from music and art to home improvement and education to fitness and cooking and everything in between. Several people fulfilled lifelong ambitions and one person published a book. Here’s Part 1 of what they said:

Music and Art

There were a number of musicians among those who answered with three people selecting the drums as their instrument of choice. Chris LaPlaca, SVP, Corporate Communications for ESPN, said: “I have a drum kit in a fairly soundproof room in my basement. I’ve found during the pandemic I make it a point to get down there and bang away much more regularly…sometimes before a workout to loosen up, sometimes just to get away for 15 minutes between Zoom calls. I’ve always enjoyed playing, mostly classic rock. But now it serves another purpose: stress relief!”

Carrie Kurlander, VP, Public Relations and Public Affairs, Chick-fil-A, commented: “I thought a lot about how to parlay isolation into productive new venture and was delighted to discover that drumming scratches an itch for me — as a stress reliever, creative outlet, and intellectual gymnastics. I am taking lessons.”

Carrie Kurlander’s Drum

Clay McConnell, Retired, Head of Communications, Airbus Americas, took a different path: “I was part of the great resignation of 2021. So, I bought a set of drums and am learning to play. I have played bass and sung with rock bands for years…but I always have been a closet drummer wannabe. So, why not now? I am not yet ready for prime time. However, I was pleasantly surprised to discover I don’t totally suck at drumming!”

Drums be damned, guitar was the answer for Leslie Sutton, VP, Corporate Communications at Discover, “I’ve been taking guitar lessons virtually. I began taking them pre-pandemic but am investing more time since it began…I love music and the entire process of learning how to get my fingers, ear and brain working ‘in concert’ to play the songs I love.”

Over in the art studio, Lisa Ryan, Client Partner, Heyman Associates, has been channeling her creative side with art lessons: “I’ve gone from acrylics to pastels to my new passion, a combo of it all. I use watercolor, pen and ink, paint, and then add collage…I lose myself for two and a half hours. It’s my Zen. When I leave I’m totally energized and ready to tackle anything.”

Artwork by Lisa Ryan

Michelle Egan, Chief Communications Officer, Alyeska Pipeline, allowed her many creative interests to drive her: “Early on I got my sewing machine out and made many different kinds of masks…mostly to give to Covenant House. The sewing machine got put away in favor of tissue paper flowers, a tedious and expensive habit. I now have a tower of high-end tissue paper and one completed flower (wink). During the holidays I found my knitting needles again and turned out many hats and a nice sweater vest.”

Two people invested their time in activities that benefited them, but also served others. Heather Rim, Chief Marketing Officer, Optiv, turned her art into an inspiring family affair bringing smiles around her neighborhood: “My kids and I became ‘Rock Fairies.’ We started painting rocks on the weekend and placing them in yards around the neighborhood. The rock art took all forms, from holiday themed designs to messages of hope and inspiration. We even created a ‘special request’ box in the front yard where local kids dropped off their design wish for the Rock Fairy. The thank you notes melted my heart. The whole effort brought me so much closer to my kids… we went on walks to the beach to find rocks on the weekend, had fun making our rock selections, worked together on the designs, enjoyed placing them in front yards… loved every minute of it. And we’re still going strong.”

Rock Fairy Offerings

Bruce Berger, Professor Emeritus, University of Alabama, on the other hand, used the time afforded by the pandemic to publish a long-awaited labor of love: “The pandemic years of 2020–21 provided time and a needed mental perspective to complete a 50-year project, writing and publishing my book of poems: Fragments — The Long Coming Home from Vietnam. I had carried those mental images and fragmented Vietnam war memories in my head for half a century. I finished the 34 poems during the pandemic and worked with a close friend and artist in the Providence Art Club to provide art for the book. The pandemic gave me focus, I guess, and it also reminded me, like a slap in the face, of my and our mortality. So, long overdue mission completed during the pandemic. The best thing that has happened with the book, and it’s selling fine for a book of war poems ?, is that its words and images have reached some other Vietnam and Middle East vets who have reached out to say the book helped them deal with their own fragments. I have a new network of vet friends, and this has meant a lot to me and them.”

Assembly Required

Living in a Lego house (figuratively, not literally), I get that “under construction” can have a different meaning depending on your perspective, but several of those who responded found solace and satisfaction in projects with a clear beginning, middle and end. “During the pandemic I had an atavistic urge to build big Lego projects after a 50-year sabbatical — the Saturn V rocket, the space shuttle, the Empire State Building and now a 3000-piece Land Rover,” said Michael Schoenfeld, Vice President for Public Affairs and Government Relations and Chief Communications Officer at Duke University. “Time seems to stand still as I try to put the just-right piece in the just-right spot and it’s a bit magical as a pile of plastic bits is transformed into something instantly recognizable. I have also developed a new admiration for the ingenuity, creativity and precision that is then translated in a manual that transcends language and cultural barrier…even when I discovered I misplaced one piece by one hole and had to undo 100 assembly steps and hours of work to correct it.”

Betty Hudson, former National Geographic Chief Communications Officer, excels at putting the pieces together in tough situations, and maybe now we know why: “I have always enjoyed jigsaw puzzles, but the pandemic reignited my actual pro-active search for new ones, and now the house doesn’t feel like a home if we don’t have one we’re working on,” Betty said. “We also discovered a network of people with similar enthusiasm and mail them to each other once completed.”

Emily Lenzner, EVP, Global Communications, Motion Picture Association, could not agree more: “When the shutdown started in March 2020, I discovered that I really like jigsaw puzzles…suddenly, I became obsessed. I started doing them while on conference calls from the living room. I found that focusing on the puzzle helped me focus on the call without distraction from the chaos of life around me. Pretty quickly, I converted an old table to be the dedicated puzzle table in my bedroom. Most nights after a long day of balancing work with helping my son with virtual learning, I would decompress over the puzzle table. It became my meditation. By the end of 2020, I think I had completed seven 500- or 1000-piece puzzles.”

COVID-19 was, and continues to be, an evolving situation that is beyond our control, but it’s great to know we can find joy during these dark times, each in our own way.

Up next: Home Improvement and Sports & Fitness.