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This spring, Jon Peschman and his wife were strolling through their Apple Valley neighborhood when they passed a Little Free Library, where they’d often plucked books to amuse their 3-year-old granddaughter.

But this time, Peschman, 67, was struck with an idea as he gazed at the book-box-on-a-post.

Hmmm, he thought. You know what a guy could do with one of those if a guy didn’t want to put books in it …

Within weeks, Peschman had built a hinged box for his own front yard, located across the street from a park, lake and playground. He stocked it not with passed-along bestsellers but with dozens of seed packets, each containing five kinds of seeds and instructions for growing a small-scale garden featuring native flowers and grasses.

“I started planting for monarch butterflies 10 years ago,” he said. “People who visit the park have taken the packets and I like to think I’ve encouraged them to do some small thing that is beneficial for the environment. I want to pique their interest in their natural surroundings.”

A recent retiree, Peschman found that his slowed pace, brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, “freed up some of my cranial space,” allowing his mind to drift and seize on the seed-sharing project.

Bick Smith’s meandering thoughts led him to a more whimsical end. A commercial writer/producer with few assignments pending, Smith, 58, conceived and constructed an elaborate “catio.” The tiered, screened porch allows his cat Charlie to crawl out of the dining room window to survey their Oakdale lot.

“Usually I focus on creative projects that make me money,” said Smith, who enlisted his daughter, back home from college, as his assistant. “We made sure we were current on our tetanus shots and went to work. This ranks up there with the most fun things we’ve ever done. And we made Charlie happy.”

While your grandmother might have scolded that idle hands are the devil’s workshop, it turns out that idle hours will send you to your own workshop — or the garage, yard or garden shed — where the tools are stored. Across the Twin Cities and the nation, thousands of people with disrupted routines and time to dream have been inspired to enhance the homes where they’ve been holed up.

“Daydreams or mind-wandering is not wasted time; in fact, it’s the furthest thing from it. These spontaneous segments of thought often lead to our most creative solutions,” declared Eric Klinger, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota, Morris.

A prolific researcher and an influential authority on thought content, Klinger devoted his 50-year academic career to studying the busy human mind, which he believes is naturally programmed to keep us productive.

“Human brains evolved to pursue goals. From primitive times, we have to find and obtain what we need to survive. If you’re blocked from pursuing your more important goals, substitute activities will arise to give you something else that you desire,” he said.

Klinger is not surprised that this unprecedented era has ignited so many light-bulb ideas in people of all ages.

“Boredom is an unpleasant state. When you are inactive, things will occur to you. You will seek tasks and scenarios that provide relief from that frustration.”

Counting chickens

As Bill Eddins and Jennifer Gerth rang in the new year, they were excited by all the potential bound up in 2020.

The musical Minneapolis couple had quite a year in the works. Gerth, 54, a clarinetist and college instructor, had gigs to play with orchestras, operas, symphonies and festivals while Eddins, 55, an accomplished conductor and pianist, had a packed international travel schedule planned.

“I was set for the best 16-month stretch of my career but once COVID hit, everything fell off a cliff,” he sighed. “It all went poof.”

“We’re goal-oriented people, always concentrating on the next thing. We never take time to just sit,” added Gerth.

With an unplanned sabbatical before them, Gerth painted her teenage son’s room and gave a face-lift to her studio to ready it for her online teaching assignments. Meanwhile, Eddins hatched an idea to build an elevated chicken coop and run in their backyard, using lumber and shingles shared on a neighborhood website.

“I designed it and built it and I got carried away. This thing is like Fort Knox; no predator will get in there,” he said. “There’s no shop class at the Eastman School of Music, so I had to study on this and I had a ball once I got started.”

Last month they purchased three day-old chicks that are still too small to take roost in Eddin’s homemade henhouse. The couple are now tending Rose, Faye and Betty inside their Prospect Park home and will transfer them outdoors next month. They’re thrilled at the prospect of gathering fresh-laid eggs from their own birds on their own property.

“For an urban guy like me, it’s weirdly great to hold my own chickens,” Eddin said. “Ordinarily there’s no way I would have the hours to do this. This time has given us the chance to think about and then do things we always meant to do but never had time for. There’s a lot of joy in not postponing what you want to do.”

Hands in the dirt

Until the workplace slowdown began in March, Americans were quite the worker bees. The rising cost of housing and health care combined with a culture that rewards workaholism means that Americans routinely work longer hours and take less time off than workers in other industrialized nations, with “job spill” increasingly eating into their off-hours.

Bick Smith built a screened-in “catio” for his cat, Charlie.
Bick Smith built a screened-in “catio” for his cat, Charlie.

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Hobbies? Not so much. Time-use surveys by the Bureau of Labor Statistics confirm that the No. 1 way that wiped-out workers spend their leisure time is by watching television.

That same work ethic follows many into retirement.

“For a lot of people, retirement is as busy as work life and they want it that way. They want a sense of meaning in these years and they want to make a difference in their activities, volunteer commitments and relationships,” said Phyllis Moen, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota.

But as the world contracted almost overnight, many people went from over-scheduled to under-scheduled.

Bill Tilton turned his surplus time and energy to the boulevard adjacent to his St. Paul home. He researched, ordered and planted three pollinator gardens to attract bees and butterflies.

“We don’t have enough insects anymore. My windshield is too clean,” said Tilton, 72. “I’m an old tree-hugger. This is the right thing to do.”

An attorney whose work shifted from office to home, Tilton leaves his desk to weed, mulch and move and monitor the watering hoses.

“I’ve never spent so much time with my hands in the dirt,” he said. “It’s more work than I thought but I’m kind of proud of it.”

Karen Aaker’s summertime calendar is usually filled with Twins games. She sorely misses the nights in the stands with her husband and a gang of baseball-loving friends.

Instead of rooting for the home team, Aaker, 57, an independent insurance agent, landscaped what she calls “the back 40” of her Maplewood lot, adding plants, mulch and pavers, and then shifted her efforts to sanding and staining the deck.

“It keeps me calm in the chaos. It’s been therapeutic; using that power washer was mesmerizing, like a form of meditation,” she said. “This summer we’re doing backyard parties instead of going to Target Field. It looks nice for our social-distance get-togethers.

“I used the money I wasn’t spending on tickets and bar tabs at Menards,” she added.

Doing it right

Enthusiasm for DIY projects has been a boon for the home improvement sector. First-quarter revenue at Lowe’s soared by 11% over the same time period last year; Home Depot saw a 7% surge.

A survey by GlobalData Retail found that two-thirds of locked-down consumers had taken on at least one garden or home enhancement project in the previous few months, a big jump over the 47% recorded in 2019.

Jon Peschman stood by a Little Free Library that he constructed to give away seed packets of native plants.
Jon Peschman stood by a Little Free Library that he constructed to give away seed packets of native plants.

Provided

John Kaul took on a job he’d been meaning to get to for years. He tore down a mouse-infested screen house used for storing garden tools and replaced it with an elegant structure built in the shape of a trapezoid.

“On the leading edge of the trapezoid, the roof lifts up like it’s reaching for heaven,” said Kaul, 72, a recently retired lobbyist. “That triangular corner is pretty cool but someone could look at it and think, that guy doesn’t know how to use a measuring tape.”

Kaul achieved a secondary benefit from his efforts, burning off 10 pounds with his physical labor. Now that the work is done, the screen house has become his favorite retreat for naps, reading and listening to the nearby aspen trees rustling in the breeze.

“I didn’t approach this with the same feverish pace that I’ve lived the past half century. I worked slow, no shortcuts. I didn’t feel rushed for once and I did it right,” he said. “COVID gave me a chance to do what everyone says you should do. Something really good came of this confinement.”

Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis freelance writer and broadcaster.