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By now, you’ve probably seen social media postings about how William Shakespeare and Isaac Newton did some of their best work while practicing “social distancing” during plagues. Shakespeare wrote at least three great plays during the bubonic plague in the early 1600s: “King Lear,” “Macbeth” and “Antony and Cleopatra.” Newton refined his theory of gravity and other scientific ideas while holed up during an entirely separate plague scare in London in 1665.

That’s what they did. So what are you gonna do with your extra time at home? Our newsroom staff members share some of their suggestions for making the best of a difficult situation.

A novel idea

An idea for a book has been rolling around in your head for years, but you’ve never written a word of it. You’ve joined writing groups, attended literature seminars and book festivals, but you can’t make yourself sit at the computer and start typing. No time, you say.

Well, that all changed. Each day during your self-imposed social exile from people, you should plan to write for two hours. That’s all. Sit down, write, and then stop at the two-hour mark. The next day, pick up where you left off by spending the first hour revising your previous day’s work, use the second hour to write new material, and then stop. Repeat this each day.

You’ll become more enthusiastic about writing, because you’re not forcing yourself to write 1,000 words or two pages or whatever. When you make yourself stop after two hours, you’ll find that you can’t wait to jump back on your masterpiece each day.

And after the pandemic is over, maintain your writing schedule. Two hours and stop. If you want to make it three, or if you only have 90 minutes, do what you are able to do. Soon, you’ll have written a good chunk of that manuscript you’ve thought about, but never started.

— Ralph Berrier Jr.

Learn about Billboard chart-toppers

I’ve never had much use for popular music charts — I like songs I like, and sometimes the masses agree, and other times they don’t.

But a current online column —’s Number Ones, by Charlottesville writer Tom Breihan — has tweaked that stance a little.

Since early 2018, a few times a week, Breihan has posted reviews for each and every single that topped Billboard’s pop chart, in chronological order, a Herculian undertaking he may have since come to regret.

He started with Ricky Nelson’s “Poor Little Fool,” which struck gold in August 1958, and he recently worked his way into 1980 with that decade’s first hit, “Escape (The Piña Colada Song.)”

Quite a lot has happened in between, to put it mildly, and Breihan’s columns — together forming a veritable music encyclopedia — are part history lesson and part social commentary, whether he’s grappling with the double-edged legacy of Michael Jackson, breaking down the storied history of “My Sharona,” or fending off angry tweets from singer B.J. Thomas.

Breihan is opinionated, frequently salty, often hilarious, knows a ton and is occasionally just wrong (see: his undying disdain for Steely Dan), but always well worth reading.

— Neil Harvey

Take time to save time

Now might be a good time to tackle that low-priority but time-intensive project you have been putting off (for how many years now?).

Perhaps you have a box full of old photos from your grandparents that needs sorted. You could even go full-retro 20th century and finally write a genuine letter to those relatives who get only a card and a few dashed-off lines from you a time or two each year. All that old schoolwork from your kids that you tossed in a box can now go into a scrapbook.

And many of these things you can do with the whole family — including having everyone add a few lines to that letter. Nor does any of this have to cost you anything — one of your kids’ old school notebooks will work just fine doing double-duty as a scrapbook and an artifact.

— Tom Carter

Never bored of board games

Many families have classic games. Maybe they should be called “boxed games” rather than board games, because not every old-fashioned game requires players to sit around a table, staring at little pieces on a board for hours.

Games such as Scattergories or charades can be played while folks sit in their favorite comfy chairs. They’re also relatively short and can be played multiple times.

Families can create their own games, too. The internet is filled with templates for customizing your own Monopoly games, or children can design their own boards. Kids can also personalize classic favorites such as the memory game, which is played by turning up cards and trying to find the match. You can cut out your own cards and draw or glue matching pictures on them.

Of course, if your family truly is into lengthy board games, set up the game table, pretend that a blizzard has struck instead of a nasty virus, and get started on that game of Catan, Life or Monopoly right away.

— R.B.

Begin the great purge

I haven’t resigned myself to a full purge or reorganization of my basement yet, but I’ve told myself that now is the time to get rid of old bills and documents I don’t need anymore.

I’m pretty sure I still have maintenance records hanging around for a truck I no longer own so that kind of thing can hit the trash can and save me some room in the filing cabinet.

— Betsy Board

Get back to nature

Put up a bird or squirrel feeder in your yard with views from a window and comfortable chair. You don’t even need a pair of binoculars. Squirrels are hilarious acrobats.

Take advantage of one of several free bird ID smartphone apps, like Cornell’s Merlin Bird ID. Audubon and Cornell have rich sites full of information on the most common backyard birds to give context.

Right now, males are fighting for territory and mates, and pairs are checking out bird houses and trees for nesting sites.

It’s the perfect activity for families, and kids can learn more about our fragile ecosystem.

— Tonia Moxley

Find creative inspiration

Try getting out a sketch book, paper, pencil and pens, and try sketching people, pets and things in your home, yard or garden. If you’re up to it, add a little watercolor. It’s simple, fun and easy to clean up.

Also, now might be a good time to go back and look at your travel photos and try to scrapbook them, scan them or make sketches or paintings from them.

It’s a great way to unplug, and time will just slip away.

— Matt Gentry

Make family meals together

You don’t have to cook a succulent seven-course dinner to get your family involved with planning meals. After the children finish their “virtual school” each day, have them find a simple recipe (or find one for them) and make it. Even kids (or adults) who have never boiled water can learn how to assemble a quick, nutritious dinner.

This recipe from my friend Kate Brennan has become a family favorite over the years. I have published it before, and now seems like a good time for families to try it.

This kale, sausage and black bean casserole is ridiculously easy to make, is delicious and is good for you even though it starts with corn chips!

— R.B.


Corn chips

1 bunch kale, stems removed, torn in pieces

1 can black beans, drained

1 cup salsa

1 lb. sausage, ground beef or bratwursts (optional), cooked

1 cup grated cheese

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Line the bottom of a 13-by-9-inch casserole dish with corn chips.

3. Layer kale over chips, then arrange black beans over kale.

4. Pour salsa over beans and kale; then cover with the cooked meat (if using bratwurst, slice it first; I like to use sliced smoked sausage or kielbasa).

5. Sprinkle cheese over top of casserole.

6. Bake for 45 minutes, or until layers have warmed through and cheese is melted and golden brown.

— Courtesy of Kate Brennan, Radford

Cozy up to a good book

For those seeking a departure from screen time, how about reading? I have fond memories of curling up for entire weekends to devour all or most of a good book — the kind you can’t wait to get back to after work, or would gladly postpone errands and chores for.

If you don’t have such a book, now might be a good time to search one out. “Chesapeake Requiem” by Earl Swift, about the increasingly dire future of Tangier Island, has been really good when I’ve found time for it. “Into Thin Air” by John Krakauer, about the disastrous 1996 Mount Everest season, and his “Into The Wild,” about the young man who died in the Alaska wilderness, are both pretty riveting.

If you have a favorite author, maybe pick up one of their books that you haven’t gotten around to yet. Also seems like a good time to read spiritual writers like Anne Lamott (love her!) or personal development books.

— Christina Koomen

Get some exercise

The whole point of social distancing is to stay indoors so you don’t infect anybody or get infected. But people need exercise and fresh air. Get outdoors, if you can, but participate in activities that allow you some space.

Hiking and biking are good activities now, as long as you maintain that old 6-feet-apart rule. Try to avoid activities that put you in close proximity to other people, such as pick-up basketball games. Don’t share water bottles or equipment, obviously.

If you go to a gym to work out, wipe down all equipment with sanitizer or wipes. Take your own yoga mats. Consider doing indoor workouts at home. Stay healthy.

— R.B.

Stream live music

Touring musicians everywhere have taken a hit, with show cancellations now the norm. Enter streaming concerts. You stay home, and musicians get to perform.

Roanoke Valley native Allen Thompson is working on a live-streaming project to help some of those acts get paid while they work from their home bases. Thompson and fellow Nashville, Tennessee-area musician Rodney McCarthy have teamed up to create VirtualFestival. Performers including Zack Nugent and Steal Your Peach — acts that have recently played Roanoke’s 5 Points Music Sanctuary — have already done shows on the site, with Horseshoes and Hand Grenades scheduled for March 28. There’s more to come. Find it at

Other streaming music can be found through at least the end of March at Shut in and Sing has a list of concerts featuring Grant-Lee Phillips, former Floyd County resident Chance McCoy (Old Crow Medicine Show), Jill Sobule, Kim Richey (who played Harvester Performance Center last year), Della Mae, Lori McKenna, Amy Speace and the ex-Martinsvillians of Wild Ponies.

Third Street Coffeehouse, in Roanoke, is live-streaming its every-Friday music offerings. Kat Mills, a Blacksburg folk act, is on this week. Catch her set and others coming up at, and donate to her performance via a GoFundMe account that the venue will publicize during the stream.

Viral Music – Because Kindness Is Contagious is another Facebook page offering a wide variety of live music over the web. Find performances from Sarah Jarosz, Josh Daniel, even YoYo Ma, via It’s a public group, so you can join and contribute your own links to good shows.

Find more live music at and

— Tad Dickens

Reboot your New Year’s resolution

Is that yoga mat rolled up in a corner or that exercise bike serving as a clothes hanger because you still haven’t gotten around to that New Year’s resolution? Here’s your chance to hit the restart button.

Are leaves piled up in your yard because your trees didn’t finish shedding before the weekly pickup? This may be a great time to take care of that, with the plus of exercise outdoors.

Say you’re an old-school music fan who prefers albums (remember those?) instead of these playlists that scramble up songs out of the order that the artists intended for them to be heard.

Many bands old and new have taken an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” attitude and posted their entire album catalogs to YouTube. Revisit a fave from back in the day, or check out that LP you never quite got around to acquiring.

Have you never managed to make it to a Roanoke Valley arts performance or museum exhibition? You’re going to have a chance to see what you’re missing from the comfort of your own home.

The Taubman Museum of Art intends to host some livestream shows featuring Roanoke Public Libraries, Southwest Virginia Ballet, Opera Roanoke and more. Watch for notice about that at

— Mike Allen

Pick up a new project

I committed myself this winter to finally learning how to crochet. Since a class didn’t really work with my schedule at the time, I learned off YouTube tutorials, which I can pause and restart as needed until I get the idea down.

I’ve made progress recently on a big project, but small projects can also keep my hands busy for an hour or so while I’m binge watching “The Great British Baking Show” for the 10th time.

Turning my niece loose with a spare ball of yarn also results in some gnarly string mazes through the house.

— B.B.

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