The idea of “bettering yourself” feels like a thing we all briefly and optimistically flirted with at the beginning of the pandemic, when commutes and Sunday brunches first disappeared. Before we knew the new, virtual stresses to come, and the strange tricks this pandemic was going to play with our sense of time.
Some Tampa Bay residents did pick up some new skills while spending more time near home, but most of the ones we spoke to didn’t think of it as “self-improvement” as much as falling into a thing that brought some joy or relief, and that can take many forms, from binge-watching 90 Day Fiance to becoming competent in a foreign language. It’s all okay.
No matter how you’ve spent the pandemic, these examples of things people learned to do over the past few months might entertain or inspire.
A Pink Floyd song
Evan Hero, 27, Tampa
Hero used to drive 80 miles a day, commuting to Lakeland for work as a quality assurance engineer. When his job went 100 percent remote, he bought a $100 guitar online and started teaching himself through YouTube videos. He said he already “knew a few chords, that was it really,” but hadn’t seriously tried in years. Once he learned Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here he surprised friends with this video.
A new dance style
Stacy Dolan, 28, Tampa
“Shuffling” germinated as a dance style in the ’90s underground rave scene and grew in popularity in the modern era of EDM. Dolan always wanted to learn, but said “finding the precise moment to start something new is always difficult.” The pandemic was the moment. After switching from the gym to at-home workouts, she heard a radio segment about a woman disabled by a car accident who found the ability to dance again. It struck a chord. “I realized that being able to dance, to move my body to the music that uplifts my soul, is a gift. I asked myself if I could commit just 10 minutes after each workout to learning the dance. That was back in June, and I have been practicing since.”
How to do her own nails — a lot
Emily Redd, 34, St. Petersburg
“Some friends and I started exploring nail art and stamping before COVID hit, but quarantining during the pandemic was really my opportunity to invest a lot of time and develop my skills,” said Redd, an electronic health records specialist at a community health center. “My family has always been very active so I never had entire free days or evenings to spend doing my nails.” Redd subscribed to a monthly nail-stamping supplies box, got tips from Facebook groups like Maniology Community and began sharing her frequently changing nails on social media with the caption “quarantine nails.”
How to start a YouTube channel in a new country
Ana da Silva, 25, and Caio da Silva, 26, Tampa
The couple arrived in Tampa, where Caio is in a doctoral program at the University of South Florida, from their native Brazil only months before lockdown. With no car, their options have been limited, and Caio said that even now they have only left home once since March, to visit a pharmacy. The idea to create a YouTube channel (in Portuguese) started when people kept asking the same questions about quarantine life in Florida. They figured video would be an easy way to answer everyone at once. Soon, though, they realized finding new topics (they talk about life in Florida and do different activities) and learning to edit video was keeping them stimulated and positive: “We kind of give more value to the things we do at home now,” Caio said. “And we’re quarantining in a condo, so we have room to move around. Our apartment in Brazil was so small.”
How the T-shirt business works
Matt Shapiro, 31, St. Petersburg
“I had way too much time on my hands,” said Shapiro, “so that’s when I started using my passion for graphic design to create apparel about the Tampa Bay area.” Shapiro sells local-landmark-inspired tees via 1771designs.com. “A lot of them are inspired by photos I’ve taken, and then edited, manipulated or redrawn,” he said. “It has been an idea I’ve been thinking about, but never had enough time in the day to dedicate to figuring out the T-shirt business.”
Ladybug and chicken wrangling
Abi O’Connor, 31, Steve Castleberry, 39, and Donovan, 1.5, St. Petersburg
Steve, a real estate agent, his wife Abi, a veterinarian, and their young son Donovan wanted to grow their own food. They tore down an old porch on a rental home and used the salvaged wood to build a garden box. The tomato plants grew quickly. Then the aphids and leaf miners showed up and started eating the plants.
They went on Amazon and bought 300 ladybugs to eat the aphids. Then the lizards showed up and ate almost all the ladybugs. Welcome to gardening! “Our plants are surviving, though,” Steve said. “They’re just a little chewed up.” Now they’re raising backyard chickens for eggs. They ordered a dozen chicks online, and they showed up in the mail this week. “I didn’t even know you could do that,” Steve said.
The Korean language
Karim Maziri, 16, Tampa
Maziri, a junior at Hillsborough High School, was thrilled to be awarded a scholarship to study abroad in South Korea for the summer via the State Department’s National Security Language Initiative. He’d gone through the long process. Applications, interviews, semifinalist, finalist. “I was attracted to the Korean language because of the honorifics,” he said. “They really value respect in language.” Then the bad news: The program was canceled. He thought it was over, but three weeks later they came back with an option to study online. For six weeks, he studied with native speakers online. Last week he went through a proficiency review. He hasn’t received the results yet, but “I definitely feel like I did well.”
To ride a longboard, and conquer fear
Rob Sipko, 36, Tampa
Sipko had never skated before, but he’d long wanted to try. “Skateboarding always looked so hard, but with social distancing and everything, I said, ’I’ll just try.’” He decided on a longboard. He got up at the break of dawn, went to an isolated spot, stepped on. By the end of the day, he was riding. Not perfect, but good enough. Now, “I cruise around, listen to positive music. It makes everything feel alright. ... I’d just tell people, something you love is right there underneath the fear. I only found it by overcoming the fear.”
How to cook up, and preserve, memories (and food)
Ben Cook 37, Miriam Cook, 35, Jasmine Cook, 10, Hazel Cook, 8, Wesley Chapel
The Cook family loved to eat out, but when the pandemic struck they started making more meals at home and trying new recipes. “But we always seemed to tweak the recipes to our liking to create one just for our family,” said Miriam Cook. “So we thought it would be a great way to document our recipes in a book format so that we can keep it for memories. And it’s a way to spend more time with the kids.” The Cooks figured that other families might want to do the same, so they designed a “family favorite food and photos journal” and started selling it on Amazon so other families can do the same. A Cook family favorite has been Nutella in a Mug Cake.
To enjoy the outdoors via disc golf
Brian Turner, 31, Brandon
Turner, who works in IT, took up disc golf shortly after the shutdown, and said he has continued playing almost daily ever since. “A few friends took it up at the same time,” he said. “Since we’re all new and terrible at the game, social distancing is easy since we throw all over the place.” He said part of the enjoyment is the beauty of the courses, which are big, wide-open green spaces. “Bonus! I’ve also lost close to 20 pounds!”
How to be a good girl
Subi-Doo, 2, Clearwater
Kristin Carson, 55, founder of ByByPoo dog waste scooping service (she calls herself a “poopologist”), had some extra time to work on training her rescued miniature pinscher Subi-Doo to not follow her everywhere or dart out the front door every time it opened. “We are always together,” Carson said, “so getting her not to follow me was hard and took a bit.”
How to play chess, and enjoy losing at it
Carrie O’Brion, 46, and Robbie O’Brion, 17, St. Petersburg
While stuck at home, Carrie, director of marketing and communications for the University of South Florida’s St. Petersburg campus, asked her stepson Robbie to teach her chess, “because everyone else in my family knows how to play and I felt left out.” Quarantine, she said, seemed like an excellent time to finally learn. “I enjoy playing, even though I’m terrible, because I get to spend time with Robbie. He has been really patient and encouraging, even though he beats me easily in every match we play.”