Two Types of Isolation

The feeling of isolation started long before the coronavirus.

By Ed Butts, PE, CPI

Believe it or not, I planned to discuss isolation in January when I tentatively laid out column subjects I planned to address in 2020. How was I to know it would become as timely as it now seems to be? In any event, let’s discuss isolation—but two different types.

Forced Isolation

My family and I began to live in the same contained environmental bubble due to the coronavirus COVID-19 in March. As I write this column in June, the coronavirus pandemic appears to be waning somewhat and people are beginning to go back to work. However, the recent riots and protests that have erupted since the death of George Floyd means a second wave may be on the way. We’ll see.

In any event, self-imposed isolation has been an effort that almost no one has ever experienced or saw coming. Locking ourselves in our homes for more than two months is a chore for anyone, much less Americans accustomed to unlimited, go-from-here-to-there freedom.

We’ve been somewhat fortunate in Oregon as the cases of coronavirus as of now are currently less than 5000 with deaths under 200. How things unfold will depend largely on how observant people are toward maintaining social distancing and avoiding encounters that can unwittingly spread the disease.

So far, my four-person family has been pretty faithful in observing the necessary avoidance of large groups and social encounters. We have been in a quasi-prison within our home and avoided unnecessary trips into town when a delivery for food might suffice.

This has been highly difficult for me as I haven’t been able to easily visit with clients, peers, or others I’ve known for decades. I’ve learned how to use Skype and my cellphone as ways of visiting my son and grandsons in Denver, much to the chagrin of my wife who was so looking forward to their visit here in June, which had to be cancelled.

I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much time in such a short period of time on the computer conducting business, visiting associates and clients, and writing, which is my primary hobby these days.

Being a prisoner in my own home is certainly nothing I’d ever contemplated. I can only hope that by the time you read this, the pandemic will largely be a thing of the past and not seriously touched your life like it has so many others. I also hope life will have returned to a new normal since I’m certain we will never get to live the old normal again.

Unforced Isolation

Now, we’ll delve into the topic I originally planned to write on—unforced and unwanted isolation. That is a term foreign to most. After all, what can unforced isolation even mean?

In my view, an unforced isolation is one in which an individual wishes to communicate with, visit, and see people—family, friends, coworkers, business associates, and anyone else—but instead is relegated to nothing more than an internal existence. It’s not as much of a life, but rather an existence, as the person is locked in solitude in their own home and thoughts.

An unforced isolation can be the result of an illness, handicap, retirement, or even a self-imposed exile where the person can no longer experience the existential joys of simple visiting and having conversations with the people who were once some of the most important in their sphere.

Candidly, I find myself inching closer to this definition as I near retirement and begin to deal with the infirmities and isolation of progressive age. I spend more time away from the day-to-day life I’ve known for more than 40 years.

I’ve become somewhat of a recluse, not able to go “down to my office” as I once did. I’ve even begun to know what programs are on television at certain times each day and schedule my day around them!

In my younger days, our company had a retired well driller who fit this description to a tee. His name was Al, he was in his late 70s, and he had the sole responsibilities of answering the occasional phone call and getting the daily mail for us.

At lunchtime, usually just before Paul Harvey began his midday news report, Al would regale us with stories of his exploits in the oil fields during the 1940s with tales of stuck drill tools, collapsed holes, blown-up holes, and the occasional gusher.

Most of us wrote his tales off as nothing more than the ramblings and exaggerations of an old guy who had missed his mark but was trying to recall and relive past glories of real or perceived triumphs.

I admit I was one of those young fools. As time has passed, however, I began to recall Al’s stories with more and more respect, fondness, and a desire to hear them again. I don’t want to hear them for the remembrance of the good times they remind me of, but for a second chance to show Al the respect I foolishly didn’t afford him during our first encounter.

Another example hits a little closer to home. I began my career in the water well industry as a pump installer wannabe in 1974, the same year another gentleman we’ll call Jim began too. Jim was a cable tool driller.

We were thrown together and worked on countless projects for almost 40 years. We became best friends during that time, and he was even the best man at my wedding.

I can’t begin to tell you the weird and not-so-weird water well and pump projects we worked on together. Fishing out a pump that three other firms said couldn’t be done. Pulling an old oil-lube turbine pump on a 100°F day from a well in an alley between two tin buildings that drove the temperature up to 125°F. Driving to the coast at midnight to get our test pump failed engine running again so we wouldn’t negate the entire test to finishing, sealing, and installing a pump for a school the day before classes began. Together, Jim and I, we were seemingly inseparable.

I trusted Jim with my secrets, and even a few of my own tall stories. He’s a few years older than me and had started to experience some personal health issues, so he retired first

Unfortunately, we haven’t maintained contact. I don’t have his phone number and am now unsure as to where he even lives. For me, this is a sad and unexpected way to have to look forward to my retirement years. I had planned on numerous bull sessions with him over coffee, our principal method of communicating, and looking back on a mutually rewarding experience, but, alas, it doesn’t appear that will happen.

I have, for the most part, been extremely fortunate in my life. I’ve had the two primary elements of a typical good life: a loving and stable family and home life, and a rewarding career while working alongside with some talented and knowledgeable people.

I spent the first 10 years of my career performing field work and learning the business, such as pump installation and well drilling. The next 20 years were spent designing water systems while supervising field installation, running a business, and watching the fruition of my work. The last 10 years I designed water systems of all sizes and types and other civil engineering works.

Throughout this span, I enjoyed the love of my wife and children and eventually saw the family expand to include grandchildren. I always looked forward to a retirement of activity and social relationships with those I worked alongside and knew for so many years.

Social Interaction

Undoubtedly, there are relatives in your life who fit this description too. They are people such as grandparents, fathers and mothers, and even brothers and sisters who might crave a few minutes of human interaction that is important to us all even if we don’t want to admit it.

And that doesn’t include the legion of coworkers, friends, clients, and others you might have associated with in your career. Many of these individuals may now be confined to their homes but would still likely enjoy visits from past associates and friends.

The need for social interaction is a part of our being. Most of us willingly seek out and become excited at the prospect of a visit from an old friend.

The visits can come from the younger generation too. They may be surprised at how excited many of us old goats would become with an impromptu visit or phone call of just a few minutes.

A word to young people: Don’t write off us old-timers as over the hill and out of touch. You might be surprised by how many of us may have faced that particular problem you’re currently enduring and could help you with advice or possibly a different way of approaching the problem.

Reach out to people, let them know they are valued for their accumulated experiences and knowledge, and ask them to share it with you. It will be as rewarding for you as it is for them, and I can guarantee it won’t be a bunch of meaningless and boring war stories.

Until next month, work safe and smart.

Ed Butts, PE, CPI, is the chief engineer at 4B Engineering & Consulting, Salem, Oregon. He has more than 40 years of experience in the water well business, specializing in engineering and business management. He can be reached at