How to Endanger Dubois While Feeling Just Great

Where did I get it, and where did I leave it?

I have no idea how I could have caught it, and worse yet, no idea where I left it behind. I won’t even know what “it” is until I can get the results of the nasal swab test I had just this morning.

What I do know is that after going to bed on May 15–the very day that the Governor’s newest order allowed people to gather inside restaurants, gyms, and churches again–I fell ill without warning.

I slept very badly. All my muscles ached horribly, even the ones in my fingers and toes, and no medicine helped for very long. For a while I had chills.

The next morning I had a fever of 102 degrees, and I almost couldn’t get out of bed. I slept through that day, and all through the following night.

I’m puzzled about how I got this, whatever it is. I have been wearing a mask in stores and the Post Office. I’ve used Kleenex to open doors in town, and rubbed my hands with sanitizers before driving home.

There are two possible outcomes to this personal story, neither of which is pleasant.

Either the test is positive, in which case I’m the lucky winner of the First-Confirmed-Pandemic-Case-in-Dubois Prize, and my husband and I are stuck at home for another 14 days. Or it’s negative, I’m still vulnerable, and somehow all my precautions didn’t even protect me from something less virulent than that nasty, extraordinarily infectious pandemic virus.

While I was coming down with this, ironically, I read The Risks: Know Them, Avoid Them by Erin Bromage PhD, an immunologist at the University of Massachusetts. I’m sure she meant to be comforting (in the “knowledge is power” sense), but the scientific reports in her article document how easily the virus can spread to the unsuspecting.

What probably troubles me most is wondering who I endangered over the past days, while I felt absolutely fine but must have been spreading my germs around (whatever they are).

This experience reminds me of bedbugs (alas), and also of true love and parenthood. Until you’ve experienced it for yourself, you can’t really understand the impact.

It looks like I got off easy. My temperature dropped quickly to 99 during the day after the bad night, and a day and a half later, I felt much better. But I’m confined to the bedroom now. I wear a mask every time I leave the room (unless I forget). I wash my own dishes in the bathroom sink.

My husband is sleeping in a guest room. For the moment, I have to work very hard to protect him. This gives me an insight into how easy it must be to share Coronavirus with your family members.

It’s quite a chore to be adequately careful. Inadvertently, I touch a doorknob without reaching for a Kleenex first, and have to circle back and clean it off. I sometimes forget the mask when I walk out to talk to my husband from across the room. (Mustn’t leave my germs in his airspace.)

I simply can’t make my own food or even my own coffee, because it requires too much touching this and that (although I do grab cans of seltzer from the pantry). Here’s a good one: Opening the front door with my gloves on, I realize that I had just worn them while readjusting the filter inside my mask — on the side my breath has been facing.  So I have to spray them as well as the outside doorknob with bleach solution, of course using a paper towel to hold the spray bottle.

For several weeks I’ve been dutifully keeping a paper record of my contacts on the off-chance I might have to give information to a contact tracer. Thinking idly about this as I lay in bed, I realized that I had overlooked several casual conversations that took place with my mask off, because I mistakenly assumed I was no threat.

But I had already read that people can pass the Coronavirus along before they experience symptoms. In fact, some infected people never fall ill at all but can still spread it around; I have a friend living elsewhere in Wyoming who falls into that category. Maybe someone I spoke with infected me. Maybe I have infected them. Who knows?

bluebirdAt least I can be glad that we are no longer living in that tiny garden apartment in the pandemic hell-hole of New York City. There, we couldn’t have escaped each other at all during quarantine (which makes me really sorry for any New Yorkers who are roommates and don’t like each other much).

Here, we have an open-plan main floor with high ceilings, several bedrooms and bathrooms, and a back porch leading to the vast outdoors and paths that go off into wilderness.

I get to step out the back door from our bedroom to enjoy the fresh air and enjoy sights I never would have seen if I weren’t confined. Today, I scared up a whitetail deer that stared at me from just beyond the porch railing before ambling slowly off. Yesterday, I watched a bluebird swooping down feed his mate inside the birdhouse, just as my husband drops off my own next meal.

I’m so fortunate that this is happening to me in Dubois, I think. But then …

I ponder what will happen, now that the doors have opened on our business establishments and there’s a steady stream of cars heading in the direction of Yellowstone. The restaurants and gyms can be as careful as possible, yet it will be very easy for the virus to spread nonetheless, if the rest of us are too easygoing–especially as tourists begin to arrive. In theory, any of them might pass it along to any of us. 

Perhaps because so far Dubois has had the distinction of having a case count of zero, relatively few of our residents are wearing masks in town. I know of at least one who has actually refused to do so. It’s tempting to view this in the light of personal liberty and cowboy courage in the face of danger, rather than in the tradition of community self-help that has always prevailed here in the Mountain West. Perhaps not enough people realize that masks are worn to protect the other guy, as a surgeon does.

If I am the one to destroy our town’s enviable zero-case record, I won’t be apologetic. I did try to protect myself and everyone else. But my experience shows how important–and how difficult–it is to be vigilant enough.

Our best defense is to take this risk seriously, and make effective use of all of the protections we know about: social distancing, masks, and sanitizers.

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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A New Love Late in My Life

A true story about small miracles

Let’s talk about something else. I’m so weary of that topic, aren’t you?

Here’s a nice true story.

Once upon a time before all this, I was walking the dog with a good friend. She asked me whether I knew someone who could provide a good home for a piano.

I cast my eyes heavenward and replied, “Ye-AH-ah!”

It would take too long to explain why, but our decision to move to Wyoming forced me to sell my beloved piano in Brooklyn (the one in the picture). This made me very sad, because playing it had brought me great joy for all of my married life.

I am an amateur musician (both my parents were professionals), and I did have piano lessons as a child. I’m not a skilled pianist now, but I still love practicing to create the sounds that the composers intended to be beautiful.

Like my friend the software designer who relaxes by writing code when he’s feeling stressed, I relax by reading music using the keyboard. I also play the flute, the violin, and the mandolin, but none of these can provide the full harmonic richness of piano music.

I had chalked up the sacrifice of my piano as one of the few downsides of living in wonderful Wyoming. What were the odds of finding a good piano for sale in a tiny town in the wilderness? And was it worth transporting one here from somewhere else, just for a hobby?

Now my friend needed to find a home for her late mother’s piano, which was a century old. It had spent the past 20 years in the home of a man in town whose mother had just passed away. He wanted it moved out so he could have his own mother’s piano instead. My friend had no room for it in her house, and said she wouldn’t play it herself anyway.

I was thrilled at her question–provisionally. Of course I wanted to see and play the piano before committing. After all, it could easily be like the ones you see in the taverns in old Westerns, with a tone more like a xylophone than a Steinway.

We drove over to check it out. It was love at first touch.

It did look a bit like a honky-tonk, scratched here and there and the keys all discolored. But it was a deep pecan color with a lovely grain, and despite its Victorian-era provenance, a no-frills design.

What mattered far more was how it sounded: Rich and deep, and barely out of tune despite heaven knows how long since its last tuning. I shook the man’s hand, we agreed to share the cost of moving it to my house, and a few days later there it was.

The dirty keys cleaned up beautifully with a damp sponge and paper towel, and scratch remover took care of the scars.

My online search to learn how much to pay my friend for this wonderful windfall revealed how lucky I had been. The piano tuner confirmed this once he heard it and saw behind the music rack. He couldn’t stop interrupting his work to tell us what he had found.

The instrument was manufactured in Toronto by a company renowned in its day for striving to make top-quality pianos. It was advertised then as an “upright grand,” and that term is still used by many sellers online.

The piano tuner pointed out some features he had never seen before in an upright, but only in grand pianos. What he said explained why it caused four burly men to groan and sweat while moving it, and why it stays so well in tune: It has a huge cast-iron frame, just like a grand, and instead of being held in place by pins the strings are run through channels cast right into the frame. The wooden keys are shaped to make them weightier at the back end, so that they hit the hammers more firmly and create a richer sound.

I am indeed in love with my new piano. I almost can’t pass it without stopping to play.

How we made space for it is another charming who-would-have-guessed Dubois story. We wanted it in a side room on the main floor, where I could close the door and play in seclusion if that was desirable. But what to do with the huge old pump organ that dominated the room?

It had come to us along with the furnishings in the house, but was no particular fun to play. You have to pump with your feet to keep the sound going, and it has quite a reedy voice. Most of the time, I rested my electronic keyboard right in front of it.

An antique-dealer friend had no interest. “They’re impossible to get rid of,” he said bluntly.

My husband suggested donating it to a church. But what church would want a heavy, cumbersome white elephant that you had to pump to play? Like me, they’d rather use a Casio keyboard.

“Put an ax to it,” I said. My husband was horrified, and suggested at least advertising it somewhere.

As a first resort, I sent an email to the Roundup, our local shopping sheet, to post among the giveaways. Then I totally forgot about it. On the morning after the posting appeared, I got a call from a newcomer to town who asked if it was still available.

An amateur musician like myself, he enjoys playing antique instruments. By profession, he is a leather-crafter. When he came to pick up the pump organ, he told me he plays the bagpipes. He had always wanted a pump organ.

We found each other in tiny Dubois, in the middle of the wilderness and hours from any Interstate. Can you believe it? Truth is stranger than fiction.

When my new love was settled in place, I sent my son a joyful text with the astonishing news. “You should have a piano,” he replied. “We always had one.”

Since then, I sometimes send him a small recording late in the evening, as he goes to sleep sheltering in place in his Manhattan apartment. (Oops, sorry. We weren’t going to go there this time.)

He thinks that his beloved Grammy (that’s her in the picture, playing my Baldwin long ago) is responsible for all this. During a break in rehearsals for the heavenly choir, she overheard my friend’s mother in conversation with the man’s mother. 

Of course they’re all together in the heavenly choir. By definition, all three were music lovers, after all. (My mother was a professional mezzo soprano, and any choir would be lucky to have her. I heard the angels cheering when she arrived.)

“Your daughter needs to find a home for her piano?” she said to my friend’s mother. “My daughter lives in Dubois, and she dreams of having a piano again. I think we can arrange a miracle.”

Hearing that, in my version of the story, the man’s mother (who was a newcomer to the group) just smiled.

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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First Day of Spring 2020: Sheltered in Peace

You can’t tell Mother Nature to be in lockdown.

After a phone call with a friend who’s in quarantine, I went out snowshoeing.

I had hoped the clouds would part and the sky turn blue, but soon I was actually enjoying the misty sky and gentle snowfall.

It was like an enchanted forest. Wearing a heavy crown of snow, the log-built restroom in the empty campground looked like a hut in a children’s story book. There was silence but for the patter of the snowflakes and the call of a distant duck.

A few days ago, the Governor closed down all public places in Wyoming for two weeks. It seems that nobody informed Mother Nature.

As in the early spring of any year, we are suddenly seeing animals other than the hardy livestock that tolerate cold and snow. Small calves are romping in the roadside meadows now, and I’ve seen my first pair of bluebirds.

Driving down-county last week, going in the direction away from Yellowstone, I had the rare pleasure of catching a glimpse of bison on the open range on the reservation.

The Native Americans have succeeded in bringing them back to the rez, and I always look for them. But I very seldom see them near the highway out there (though other bison are regulars along the route to Jackson).

Unlike what we expect in the summer when we head to Jackson, this time there was no traffic jam. Nobody else stopped to take a picture. Besides, going that way off-season there are hardly any other cars, anyway.

Coming back from dinner at a restaurant up-mountain last week (when dinners out were still allowed), we were remarking what a shame it is that you seldom see moose any more. We turned a corner and there, among the willows: Not one, but three!

We stopped and watched them enjoying their own evening meal. The dark spots at left are the two that are hiding out in the willow bank.

A few days later, taking the same route, I saw one of them again, again a dark shape among the russet willow branches. I pulled over and watched for a long time as it grazed in the late afternoon sunlight.

It stood still for a while afterwards, and then it sat down beneath the willows. I drove on, feeling rather fortunate.

The other day, our daughter spoke some words I never thought I’d hear her say: “I wish I lived in Dubois right now.”

You can go outdoors anytime, she went on, and always find something interesting to do. So true.

If he was older and could understand exactly what she means, this young fellow might agree with his mother. (Now there’s another wild creature I wish I could see more often.)

Out walking the dog yesterday, I encountered a friend and we hiked on together up a lovely country road, socially distant as per CDC advisories, well apart but happily together nonetheless.

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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Dead of Winter in Dubois: Dreams and Games

Snowbirds depart this time of year, but I wouldn’t miss it.

It’s not just the ranchers: Many among us have saved this time of year for projects we know we’ll be too busy to finish when the weather is warm, the days are long, and we stay outdoors as much as possible.

The remote workers among us must count their lucky stars right now that they don’t have to leave the house to go to work. The quilters and painters are busy indoors, I’m sure. I saved my pile of mending for one Saturday in mid-February, and I began practicing my mandolin again.

Not that February here is as bad as it may seem on the weather app. The arid climate makes sub-freezing temperatures fairly tolerable. I stepped outside in my shirtsleeves to snap this image of the thermometer outside the garage.

Dubois belongs to us these days, except for the snowmobilers from the flatlands to the east, who travel in procession up-mountain every day trailing huge rigs behind their pickups. When time permits, we like to snowmobile or ski or snowshoe ourselves.

It’s never as cold as I expect out there. I always over-dress and have to strip off the hat and mittens.

For some others, this is the time to start grander projects, which promise to offer us more to do on frigid winter days in the future.

The local newspaper has confirmed rumors that someone is planning to open a bowling alley just behind the grocery store (which, ironically, used to be a bowling alley). And a group of eager volunteers is soliciting ideas for a new recreation center. They’ve asked permission from the town to place it on empty land next to the new wetland park at Pete’s Pond.

While others elsewhere may spend their leisure time staring at small screens, some of us who are feeling cabin fever long to get together with others. In the warmth and the glow of lamps, we enjoy amusements that some poor folks play only with invisible opponents online: Poker, bridge, Scrabble.

Last Sunday, we dragged out one of the foreign-language Monopoly sets that we’ve collected during our travels, and took it to the monthly board games night at the church hall. We laughed as we read the street names on the deeds in bad imitations of a Mafioso accent.

First we prayed to stay out of Prigione so that we could buy our properties. Later, we blew on the dice hoping not to roll doubles so that we could stay in Prigione as long as possible and avoid landing on someone else’s.

It had been years since any of us had done this, and it was great fun.

Many “snowbirds” can’t or won’t stay here during the winter. If you’re not accustomed to a cold Northern climate, I can understand that. But I wouldn’t miss any of it — the sparkling vistas, the bright blue skies, the brisk air, and the many little pleasures of the time when our days are slow.

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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On Learning How to Be

I had so much else to do! And then I saw this sign.

It was Saturday, the last day of November. The next day would be the start of Advent, that season of penance which, in the words of my favorite spiritual guide, is meant “to get you better fit for what’s to come, by cleaning you and trimming you and training you.”

Winter had arrived suddenly, like an unwelcome in-law, dropping nearly a foot of snow. It was difficult to see the lines on the highway as I drove toward town.

This was not what I had planned for the day. I had emails to respond to and documents to prepare. But I found myself diverted, to help a snowbound friend whose car was stuck in her driveway.

I had volunteered to help, but I was rebelling. I had so much else to do!

And then I saw this sign. The complete message used to read “Be alert. Deer on highway.” I don’t know why, but for several days it had been conveying this truncated, existential message. That morning, it gave me pause.

Simply be. That brought to mind the words of author Eckhard Tolle, whose focus is on the meaning of being, and especially of being in the moment.

“Whatever the present moment contains,” he wrote, “accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it.”

Maybe I sighed. Anyway, I drove on in a new frame of mind towards Superfoods, to do what my friend had scheduled for that time. I put on the apron and began to greet people coming in the door, to thank those who slipped something into the slot in the bucket and then to ring the little red bell.

Perhaps echoing the next word that was missing from that electronic highway sign, I felt unusually alert.

Neighbors stamped snow off their boots and opened heavy scarves as they passed my stool. There was lots of chatter with the cashiers.

All roads east and southbound, I heard, had been closed by snow on this morning two days after Thanksgiving. Not only was my friend snowbound in her own home; some people who had come to visit our town for the weekend were now trapped here, and kept away from theirs.

There were various responses to this predicament. I overheard one young man who came to visit his parents, and would now have to miss something important back at work. I wished he could have seen that sign. “Worry pretends to be necessary,” Tolle has written, “but serves no useful purpose.”

Someone else inquired how to get a permit to cut a Christmas tree in the forest. “You’ve come all the way from Casper to get a Christmas tree?” I asked, and then realized: Being trapped, he’d decided to make the best of it. I wished him a tree full of good memories.

That day I never did get to those other things I had meant to do. Instead, we tried to dig my friend’s car out of the snow. The drifts were soft as powdered sugar; the snow sparkled as I tossed it off the shovel. Our effort was doomed to failure; her car spun endlessly on a patch of ice concealed by the white.

As the light waned into evening, we made room for her in our own back seat and drove off toward town to enjoy the Christmas concert by songwriter Skip Ewing. Skip and his wife Linda made Dubois their home town last year. Once again, he had decided to welcome the season in our company, among his new friends.

As he introduced his songs, Skip sometimes bragged about the famous people who had recorded them or the famous places they had been performed. He’s so likeable that we are willing to overlook this, because he surely knows his way around a guitar, and something about his manner makes us feel like neighbors rather than an audience. If anything could make me live in the moment that evening, it was his unspoken invitation to add our own voices to his in singing “Silent Night.”

Welcome, Advent. The snow has returned, and with it the long quiet evenings in my home several miles outside a remote small town in Wyoming. As the frantic holiday season approaches, I can mentally rebel against these realities of winter. Or (constitutionally A-type ex-urbanite that I am) I can use them as reminders that there are realities more important than my constant busy-ness.

Like the snow, I can drift sometimes. Perhaps exactly when I feel I have too much to do, I will remember to emulate the brilliant stars in the dark sky outside, and simply be.

© Lois Wingerson, 2019

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Bouquets for Dubois

Another city luxury pops up here in the wilderness.

One thing I will miss about Brooklyn (sometimes) are the masses of colorful cut flowers that that spill out from buckets in front of nearly every deli, all year round.

As there is about one deli per block on a shopping street in Brooklyn, that was plenty of opportunity to be tempted by flowers. And I succumbed, nearly every week.

I took this photo just before we began packing to move out of the house. (How different this looks than the rough-hewn charm of our Wyoming home!) If there wasn’t a bouquet on this dresser in the entryway, that probably meant I was sick or away on a trip.

Every Mother’s Day in Brooklyn, I could expect a bouquet like this from my son. Being on a budget, he would always choose a selection from a nearby deli and make it into an arrangement, rather than paying for a bouquet from a high-end New York florist.

I cropped an image of another one of his Mother’s Day bouquets, and I use it for the lock screen on my laptop.

So I would still see “fresh” flowers nearly every day, but I have not bought many bouquets in Dubois. The supermarket sells a few, but they are mostly carnations and daisies — nothing varied or exotic.

The flowers in my living room look nice, but they’re artificial. This is grass and sage country, I thought. Who needs flowers?

Besides, they’re so easy to find outdoors. I saw these masses of lupine among the sage up on Union Pass last week. It’s my favorite color combination. Someday I will paint a bathroom in those colors.

Nature grows flowers by the armful here in a dazzling array of colors, but that task is beyond me. To keep flowers alive in a garden near my house would mean constant watering, carrying them inside overnight when the weather is cool, and unyielding defensive efforts in the war against deer and ground squirrels. Simply not worth the effort.

So I gasped the first time I stepped out the side door last month, after returning from our final stay in Brooklyn. Arising from my years of sheer neglect was this utterly perfect iris.

I had seen the blade-like leaves for several years and not pulled them, because they looked too elegant to be a weed. I can’t even recall when, in a burst of naive enthusiasm, I must have planted that bulb.

That wasn’t the last of the pleasant surprises. Among the new storefronts that are springing up in the middle of town, I was pleased to find the Wilderness Flower Company.

Casey is new to Dubois. She worked for a while at Western Bouquet, the flower shop far up a side street in the old part of town. I rarely patronized it because it was out of the way. To be frank, I tended to forget that it existed.

The owner retired while I was away. Casey bought the business and relocated it to a prominent spot along the boardwalk in the center of Dubois, right next to the new old-fashioned drugstore. There she holds court with her two small children over the large refrigerator and its stock of tall, proud blossoms.

I need refrain from indulging myself no longer. Why should I not have my bouquet of fresh flowers each week, just because I’ve decamped to the remote high mountain desert?

I make it a practice to buy the oldest and least attention-grabbing of the blooms.. I want to leave the showier flowers there for other customers, because I want The Wilderness Flower Company to survive.

Just like the sage, the lupine, and my lovely, lone iris.

© Lois Wingerson, 2019

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Masterworks by Dubois’ Lesser-Known Artists

Danita Sayers bustles about the rooms of the Dennison Lodge, tacking treasures to the folding screens and carefully placing the pieces of artfully painted furniture.

“We paint on whatever we can find to paint on,” she says, as I pause to admire the portrait of a horse standing in a swale. It has greatly elevated  the status of an ordinary TV tray the artist found at the Opportunity Shop.

A giant glider, a sliding bench made from horseshoes and wagon wheels, dominates the room. It’s the creation of a 6th grader.

Danita has spent the month transporting these artworks and displaying them statewide, bringing back the honors and the ribbons that prove their worth. Of 40 pieces submitted to the State Art Symposium this year, 21 won awards.

The Governor’s wife picked 2 from our little school for the First Lady’s Choice Awards. This year, Danita told me, the Dubois school got Congressional Artistic Discovery awards in both the 2D and 3D categories, and one was for a photograph, which is rare. These will go on tour for a year, and then hang in a gallery in Cheyenne.

Now she’s putting them on display, 166 artworks chosen by herself and her pupils (except for those award winners that have been held back elsewhere), during the annual school art show.

The owner of a local curio shop is helping out, while scoping the show for items she might be able to purchase resell in her shop. In other years, Danita says, art dealers and art professors have come from far away to look for acquisitions at this show.

The annual Dubois K-12 Youth Art Show has gone on for decades. This was the first time I saw it–someone who, like most parents, once thought her own young children were truly exceptional artists. What most takes my breath away here are the works by children who are just learning to read.

Dubois has more than its fair share of top-ranked artists and photographers, but its youngest don’t get much publicity and have no commercial websites. Danita, who is the art teacher in our school, bursts with pride in her students and the passion to share how special they are.

The student who created this sculpture was blind, she tells me. Would I believe that?

This peacock was the seventh-grade artist’s first oil painting. “She doesn’t even know it’s good,” Danita says with a smile, and repeats herself.

Slowly, I come to realize why so many locals like to point out the works by their favorite school-aged artists at the national art show that comes to the Headwaters in mid-summer.

These artists are growing up in one of the most remote towns in the lower 48. Some of them go home to ranch chores after school. and think the biggest event of the year is branding the calves.  The  parents are contractors and bank clerks and restaurant owners — precious few with a strong history in the liberal arts. Their home town is a place where kids waste time on a lazy summer Sunday by tooling around the main street on their bikes doing wheelies.

Unlike my children’s classmates three decades ago in New York City, some of these artists may find the thought of even visiting a city a bit frightening. Many have ridden a horse, shot a gun, been to a rodeo, and camped out overnight, but very few if any have seen a renowned painting by a great artist in an art museum.

What they do see every day is the mountain landscape and the wildlife. Instead of visiting galleries, they go on camping trips with botanists to study wildflowers.

In the primary and middle school my children attended, a short distance from the Brooklyn Bridge, the distinctions between the tough guys, the future CEOs, and the arty kids were clearly defined.

Walking past these panels, it is clear that it’s not an issue. Everyone does art, and many do it exceedingly well.

“A lot of our best artists are ranch kids, wrestling club guys,” Danita says.  She points across the room to a landscape. “The guy who made that painting was in wrestling and football. He won a blue ribbon [for the painting], but he also excels in sports.”

My guess is he knows the terrain quite well because he probably goes hunting up there in the fall.

As Danita puts it, at this school art is not placed in a “gentle” category alone. The school mascot is a ram. Clearly they can paint them as well as they can butt helmets on the field.

© Lois Wingerson, 2019

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