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The need has come to explain myself to someone. First: I hear voices in running water. This communion-with-nature deal started out as mystic and romantic charm, like being on the edge of a great secret. I’d be hiking along the willow flats or aspen groves next to your typical Wyoming bubbling stream: Moss-covered stones, Lonicera waving in the sun, air that tastes of lemon on the back of the throat- and a murmur would float over the water’s surface. It sounded as if several young people were singing a message, or an underwater anthem. As I stood motionless, the voices grew louder and sounded like a psalm or a chant- Gregorian.., if the creek was wide enough.

Enraptured as hell by the whole experience, I would sit at the water’s edge for hours, knowing that if I was calm enough, and pure enough, the words would come together and some message of great importance would be revealed.

That was four years ago, when I was still married.

Then came the winter Julie boxed up her vitamins, the cook-book collection and two drawers full of Danskins, and moved across town. Less than two weeks passed before my shower distinctly said, “What dire offense from amorous causes springs,” I didn’t know at the time, but that’s the first line of a poem called ‘The Rape of the Lock” by a man named Alexander Pope. (Rape is the recurring theme in much of my plumbing’s poetry.)

The morning after my shower first spoke, the flushing toilet said, “Eat fish today.”

Of course, I didn’t eat fish that day. People who let auditory hallucinations boss them around wind up driving wooden stakes through the hearts of random strangers. Or tying up their mother and splitting her in half lengthwise with a chain saw. A lawn sprinkler in Cheyenne once gave me that suggestion.

At times I shout rude comebacks at the voices- “Fuck you too, buddy.” – or I stick fingers in the water while they’re speaking. Nothing fazes the jerks. They laugh and trill and go merrily about the business of driving me further from reality.

To read more Sex and Sunsets by Tim Sandlin, visit Amazon.com

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Jackson Hole has the youngest old-timers of any valley in the West. Anyone over 22 who has been here at least three years considers himself qualified to tell a newcomer, “It’s nice enough now, but you should have been here before people like you came and ruined it.” After the subject of billionaires displacing millionaires and wrecking paradise, an old-timers’ second favorite subject is how much worse the weather used to be. To hear them talk, each winter was colder and the snow deeper all the way back to 1911. Before that, exaggerations set in and memories can’t be trusted.

Roger Ramsey was telling me the coldest winter he ever lived through was 1978-79, when it hit 64 below zero on New Year’s Eve and spit bounced. Tires squared, key holes jammed solid, anti-freeze froze, the electricity went out, and several hundred people piled together in a heap in the lobby of the Wort Hotel.

“I’ve been in sixty below temperature and 60 below wind chill,” Roger said, “and trust me, sixty below temperature is colder. Wind chill doesn’t mean squat unless you’re outside naked.”

What I remember about 1979 was the 155 degree difference between New Year’s and the Fourth of July. People who live in states where weather is not the central element of life can’t relate to a 155 degree jump.

Because of a childish prank up Crystal Creek involving a paint-ball gun, a sow grizzly, and the Vice President, Roger Ramsey was recently given a choice between jail and 100 hours of community service. His service entailed going up to Pioneer Homestead where the real old-timers live, and taping oral histories for the Living West in Memory Program which is an NPR show in which myths and legends of the mountains are set straight. We found Caleb Johnstone, T.R. Whitlock, and Betsy Rae McAlester nodding out at a table in the Homestead courtyard, each facing two one-dollar bills, a Delaware Punch, and one of those bruise-colored peanut and sugar patties that are shaped like a hockey puck and have the shelf life of a belt buckle. Roger says old guys eat them for the preservatives.

Roger set up his Radio Shack voice-activated microphone and, as usual, conversation sprang up on ‘How Cold Was It?’

Caleb Johnstone ran his finger bones over a head so bald you could see the separate skull plates, and told us about November of 1951. Here’s what he said:

“They was a flock of sandhill cranes bedded down the night in Christian Pond there and the temperature dropped from forty above to forty below in two hours flat. Froze ever one of those bird legs solid as rebar in concrete. Next morning they was they pitifulest bunch of birds I ever saw. But then, right while I watched, this big old crane seemed to be the boss bird commenced to flapping his wings and all the other cranes flapped their wings and pretty soon the ice broke free from the banks and that flock rose into the sky, carrying the top 18 inches of Christian Pond with them. Looked like a municipal ice rink floating in the air above Jackson as they crossed town and headed south.

“I heard that ice didn’t melt free till the flock was passing over the Odessa, Texas, stockyards where it crashed down in one huge slab. The Texans never knew where it come from, but they had such a mess of pounded meat under ice that they went out and invented the chicken fried steak.”

T.R. Whitlock stared at Caleb with one eye so cataracted it looked like a glowing Ping Pong ball. He said, “Fall of 1951 wasn’t near as cold as late March 1942.”

Caleb came back with the pithiest retort he could think up. “Oh yeah?”

“Yeah,” T.R. said. “That was the spring Molly Van Dyke brought a little bottle of sorghum molasses to the Moran School to pour over biscuits during big recess. To stop the molasses from firming, she kept it under her armpit all morning, but come recess Budder T. Olaf got to teasing her and he threw the molasses bottle and it broke it on the bicycle rack that used to be a hitching post.”

“Does this story got a point?” Caleb asked.

T.R. blinked his Ping Pong ball eye. “After we went back indoors for elocution exercises a grizzly bear that’d just woke up from winter-sleep came out of the woods and took to licking the molasses off that bicycle rack. First we knew of it, that bear busted through the double front door with the rack and my little sister’s ruby red Flexible Flyer bicycle stuck on its face.

“It ran up and down the room, knocking over desks and chairs and the living terrarium with the hibernating snakes and the live iguana. Some of the girls let loose in their pants and what with the doors open that froze the floor slick and the bear fell and slid into the blackboard. Miss Hankfield grasped her Wonder Bread ruler .”

“I remember that ruler,” Caleb said. “It had Wonder Bread Builds Strong Bodies Twelve Ways on one side and on the other they’d written one way per inch.”

“Who’s telling the story?” T.R. said.

Caleb said, “Don’t tell it if you can’t do it right.”

“Mrs. Hankfield reached across the bicycle rack and cracked that bear on the nose. It ran clear out the back end of the coat closet and into Pacific Creek. Carried a good number of jackets with it, but lucky for us my sister’s bicycle fell off. We got away with a flat tire on the front.”

I couldn’t help myself. “So, what happened to the bear?” I asked.

“Nobody knows,” T.R. said. “There was stories going around of a bear with a wide set of iron teeth terrorizing the DuNoir that spring, and in late June a cabin maid at Lake Hotel found the bicycle rack out by the dude corrals. It had a pink tongue stuck to it.”

Roger Ramsey turned a whiter shade of pale.

“That’s not the end of the story though. A year later Molly Van Dyke marred Budder T. Olaf and for forty-three years she made him pay for that molasses, every night and every day, till the good Lord finally said Enough and called Budder T. home.”

Betsy Rae spit something green on Roger’s Nike. “Cold is one way to judge a winter,” she said, “but I prefer snow as a gauge of harsh.” Betsy Rae claims to be 112 and there are those who believe her. She is considerable older than Caleb or T.R. That much is true. More than eighty years of working outdoors in Wyoming has turned her skin the color and texture of a snapping turtle.

“Nineteen and twenty-two,” she began. “The tallest building in Jackson was the four-story, two-hole outhouse behind the Clubhouse there on Center Street.”

She spit again but this time Roger was ready for her. She said, “The men of our town were too lazy good-for-nothing to shovel snow so they’d just let it drift over the first floor, then open the door to the second and so on until mid-April when the snow started back down and so did the men.”

She poked Roger with a scaly fingernail. “That Christmas, your great-granddaddy Jug Ramsey — who wasn’t no more account than you are — rode his mule Frankie in from the upper Gros Ventre. Jug left Frankie out back in a howling snowstorm and went inside where he got caught up in an all-night domino tournament. Whiskey was involved. And a crib girl from Elk.

“The next morning snow had piled up neck high to a Mormon bishop, as they measured it back then, and Jug couldn’t find his mule. He looked for two days until he became convinced Frankie had died and been buried in a drift. Everyone said Frankie would turn up in the spring, so Jug headed home up the Gros Ventre before the next storm.

“What Jug and no one else knew was Frankie had somehow taken shelter in the first floor of the outhouse. Snow piled up so deep that winter four floors wasn’t enough. They ended up cutting two holes in the roof and stretching a canvas tarp for privacy. When spring finally did come the snow melted down floor by floor until folks noticed an odor worse than usual.

“I’ll never forget the sight if I live to be 115. Frankie was packed in there so tight they had to peel off all four walls. People came in from miles to see that donkey, and the Police Gazette even sent out a photographer. The men never used that outhouse again. The next year they not only built an indoor water closet but they let responsible women join the club.”

Like a fool, I asked, “Did the Gazette run the story?”

Betsy Rae nodded. “You betcha. Right on the front page, they had a picture of Frankie looking for all the world like an eight-foot Fudgesicle with hooves instead of a stick, and the headline there read: Jackson Men Can’t Tell Ass from Hole in Ground.

Silently, Caleb and T.R. pushed their dollar bills across the table to Betsy Rae. Roger turned off the tape recorder and said, “I’d rather go to jail.”

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For ten years, let’s say roughly from the day I turned 27 until I turned 37, I danced in the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar six nights a week, five hours a night. Roughly. It varied a bit but not as much as you would expect.

Dancing was life, there for a while, but problems arose because the bands played forty-five minutes then took a break for fifteen and I didn’t have anything to do for the fifteen other than drink. Every night, for years and years, I mixed four or five hours of extremely aerobic exercise with at least five drinks. Jim Beam with a splash mostly. I daresay I was one of the healthier drunks in Wyoming.

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What kicked off the dancing and drinking chapter of my biography was this: The nice girl I married left me. We’d more or less raised each other from childhood and she was ready to grow up. Here is self-evident truth 2.) “The only thing worse than breaking up with your first love is not breaking up with your first love.”

I hate to think of all I would have missed if she hadn’t had the courage to go.

But, a couple months after she left I realized I was suffering from Failure to Flourish. This is a real syndrome, by the way, only it rarely afflicts people over two. It means if you don’t touch a human for months at a time, you’ll get really weird. It’s even worse for writers. My friends were imaginary to start with. I knew I was in trouble when I found myself trying to cop a fingertip-to-fingertip feel off the cashier at the Wort coffee shop.

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Then, one fateful night I wandered into the Cowboy Bar and there they were — women, waiting to be touched. All you had to do was learn how to dance Western Swing. Thank God this was in the days before the ten-step or I would have had to make friends with sheep. Western Swing involves holding hands and rocking back and forth. You spin, your partner spins, every now and then the couple stands side-by-side in a near cuddle.

I couldn’t believe it! Touch… Lots of touch and all I had to do to earn it was drink like a college freshman. Katy (the wife I mentioned; nice woman) and I were one of those couples who spend 24 hours a day together, day after day, year after year, until you realize you haven’t spoken to anyone including the wife in six days, so I wasn’t too adept at talking up the girls between dances, which is why I drank during the break.

I lived one block from the bar. Driving dunk wasn’t an issue. I do recall drawing a map to my apartment on a bar napkin one night before I passed out and waking up at home. Lord knows who took me there.

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Mostly I was a dance object and my partners were Platonics who were beautiful but wouldn’t have taken me home with them if I’d been the last cow poke on the range. Real cowboys watching didn’t know this so I developed an undeserved reputation as a chowhound. After a couple of years, I started developing R.I.s (Romantic Interests). The Platonics and I spent most of our time together and communicated through dance or even conversation. The R.I.s filled the other gaps. The R.I.s hated the Platonics and I was too vague to understand why.

“I’m monogamous,” I would say, in my defense.

“You’re sick,” the Romantic Interests would shout as they headed out the door.

I thought this was normal.

Anyone who has read my first novel, “Sex and Sunsets,” has read all this guff before. While the plot of that book is a figment of the imagination, the spirit is true. It’s a lot more factual than what passes as memoir on Oprah. Except, of course, in the book I get the girl in the end. Novels tend to turn into daydreams for the last fifteen pages.

An aside: The American cowboy is the only profession I know of with its own art forms. You’ve got your cowboy dance, cowboy poetry, cowboy music, and cowboy art. Lawyers don’t have genres of poetry named after them. Carpenters don’t have carpenter dances. All they have are the ants.

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My daughter, Leila, who is six and was named after a J.P. Donleavy novel and not an Eric Clapton song, has been pulling out the old books I read to her when she was two. Now, Leila reads them to me. How many of you are familiar with the plot of “Go, Dog. Go!” One dog insults another dog’s hat and they all end up at a big party in a tree. I learned a valuable lesson about containing conflict from “Go, Dog. Go!”

What makes the book interesting to me are the three different punctuation marks in the title. You hardly ever see punctuation in a title, except for that silly colon in nonfiction. “I Did It My Way: The True Story of Transgender in NASCAR.” Does anyone else out there know of a book with three different punctuation marks in the title? Am I the only one who cares deeply about this?

Here’s the deal. I will send a free copy of “The Pyms: (note the colon) Unauthorized Tales of Jackson Hole,” (available only on Timsandlin.com) to anyone who can find me a title with three different punctuation marks. I don’t count titles using punctuation to disguise dirty words — C;:ks?!ker!

Leila asked me to tell her a bedtime story last night and because this is Thanksgiving week, I told her the old Isuzu legend about the true meaning of Easter. The Isuzus were a splinter group of Arapaho that lived in Yellowstone after the Battle of Greasy Grass. Other Indians considered them the bastard spawn of Custer, and it is true many of the Isuzus had blue eyes and a tendency to self-promote. Their tragic flaw was the fact they were high-centered and prone to rollovers.

A missionary named Sister Leslie Gore converted the entire tribe to Christianity in 1888 by teaching them the alternate words to “Jingle Bell Rock.” But some of their Christian traditions intermingled with the Happy Hunting Grounds faith system, such as the belief Mary was impregnated by a geyser.

Leila didn’t believe me. Clutching her little Piglet stuffed pig, she said, “You’re making this up as you go along, Dad.” I said if she didn’t go to sleep the Sandman would rub dirt in her eyes.

Anyway, the true meaning of Easter in northwest Wyoming, according to Isuzu legend as told by me to my daughter:

Two thousand and whatever years ago, the established church and an occupation government conspired with the media to have Jesus put to death on a cross between a couple of telephone solicitors. Jesus’s last words, were, “Forgive me Father. I do not want to change my calling plan.”

Later, he was cut down and body was hauled off to a cave. While the Bible says he would be dead for three days, any first grader knows Friday sunset to Sunday sunrise is only a day and a half, but you have to suspend some disbelief here, to be a true Fox News Fundamentalist.

So, after three days, Jesus rolls away the rock covering the cave and rises from the dead. He steps out of the cave, and if he sees his shadow he runs back in and we get six more weeks of winter.

Leila sat up in bed. “Is that true?”

I said, “It’s Gospel.”

“What about the Easter bunny?”

“The Isuzus didn’t believe in a rabbit who hid eggs around the house and then forgot where he hid them until they started to stink in mid-summer. They bought into the rising dead guy theory, but they just couldn’t swallow a holiday hare.”

Leila hit me with her Piglet.

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Throughout the 1970s and into the early 80s, I spent my summers and falls living outdoors, illegally, on National Forest land. The first few years, I lived in a tent, then later a homemade Cheyenne tipi. Nowadays, what we did is called homelessness. Back then, it was living in the woods. Millions of tourists paid big money to sleep outside like me. The only difference I could see was they had an indoor bed (and bathroom) to go back to.

The plan was to make enough money to move to town for the winter. Come September and October I found a job with a guaranteed lay-off so I could claim unemployment for six months and write a book. I wrote four unpublished and unpublishable novels this way, until the breakthrough in 1987. I turned 35 living alone in a backpacking tent up on Crystal Creek, reading Saul Bellow by flashlight light.

There were two years — ’77 and ’78, as I recall — where the only work I could find in the fall in Wyoming was in big game processing. I became an elk skinner. I had to wear a hairnet and a hard hat. The hairnet was because I hadn’t cut my hair in a dozen years and the boss was a redneck. The hard hat was because the elk hang on meat hooks that could cold cock your ass if you didn’t watch where you were going.

I wore a chain link belt with two knife sheaves and a slot for my sharpening steel. Big Mickey Mouse boots. We had a large barrel where all the bones and scraps and cigarette butts and the occasional Coke can went for the animal byproducts man to pick up every Friday. To this day, I can’t eat anything that lists byproducts as an ingredient. Can’t even feed the stuff to my dog. People speak admiringly of Indians who used every bit of a buffalo when they killed it, but those Indians were wastrels compared to the modern meat industry. Indians didn’t use the glop found inside the lower intestines.

Deer and antelope are easy to skin. They peel like a banana. Elk and moose are harder because the muscles are attached to the hide, which is why they can do that skin flicking maneuver to shake off flies. I don’t recall skinning a buffalo. There weren’t that many around back then. I did sleep under a buffalo robe for a few winters. They aren’t like blankets. As your body heat warms the hide, it forms a soft shell around your body, like a leather glove. Or a warm tortilla. Quite comfortable, especially if you can ignore the tiny bugs in the hair.

I only skinned one bear. Most hunters kill bears for the hide and head instead of the meat. They think a nice bearskin rug in front of a crackling fire will make them irresistible to women. Here’s advice to those of you who would like to get laid on a bearskin. Make sure you’re the one on top. Hollow bear hairs up your butt are not conducive to romance.

Skinned bears give me and lots of other people the heebie-jeebies. A skinned bear looks remarkably like a child, say, ten years old, dipped in candle wax. A child with a slightly humped back and no head. It’s the fingers, I think, that make them so disturbing. A skinned bear’s hands and feet could pass for human, except the feet are on backwards. The big toe is on the outside. Personally, I could live the rest of my life in peace without ever skinning another bear.

I say I took the job out of a lack of any other work in Wyoming in the off-season, but the truth is I became an elk skinner because I thought it would look cool on a book jacket. Ten years before my first publication, I was already aware of marketing. It’s the same reason I worked trail inventory for the Forest Service, buffed belt buckles, and sold Popsicles out of a truck that played insane music from loud speakers mounted on the roof, but not the same reason I became a Chinese cook. I went into egg rolls from desperation as opposed to publicity.

Skinning elk affected my attitude toward hunters in general and hunters from Pennsylvania and Texas in particular. As a rule, the animals I skinned and boned were much more beautiful, noble, and deserving of love than the foul-smelling drunks in DayGlo orange vests and camo pants hovering in the background, bragging about the rite of passage into manhood they’d passed through by killing. Elk are smarter than other animals, including many people, and they mourn for their dead loved ones. I have seen an elk hang out around the body of a family member for days.

The definition of sport is a game where both sides can win or lose. Hunting lions with a spear might be a sport. Hunting elk with a gun is slaughtering meat.

Although, the whole ethical question isn’t as black or white — good versus evil — as the two sides of the argument would have you believe. The truth is, vegetarians don’t have the power or motivation to save a species like a person out to kill the individual members of that species. If not for duck hunters, there would be very few ducks. Rich, white guys protect duck habitat purely so they will be able to blow their little brains out. To a lesser extent, the same goes for elk and trout.

After several years of being conflicted on the whole killing thing, I discovered my bottom line when I was driving the Antelope Flats Road and I cam upon two men, one kneeling and the other using his pickup truck bed as a base, blazing away at three panicked elk who were running for the tree line. And, at that instant, I hated those men on a level I’ve never hated anyone or anything before. It was so unfair and such a waste of beauty. The intensity of the hatred shook me. So, I came to know where I stand on hunting.

P.S. I took my wife and daughter to Romeo and Juliet Sunday. I don’t guess I’d ever seen the whole play, although of course I knew the story. That Romeo was a total creep. First, he’s so sick in love with Rosaline he’s ready to die, then he switches to Juliet, who is only thirteen and doesn’t know men will say anything to get to a girl her age. Her father is terrible, her cousin is jerk, Romeo’s friends are like frat boys in heat. The friar is stupid as a fence post. All the men are bad and the women are various levels of wonderful — just like in my books. I’m starting to think me and Shakespeare have more in common than a tendency to write sonnets.

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Let’s say you’re hanging out in the campus Starbucks with a bunch of MFA students. You know the kind. The girls order their coffee decaf triple venti three Splenda extra hot stirred no-foam with double whipped cream and extra caramel. The guys call a movie a film. Some twit will jump down your throat if you use “party” as a verb. And these intellectuals (you can’t say pseudo-intellectual without being one) break out in a limerick reciting contest.

What you can do, after you’ve read this blog, is show them up by reciting the original limerick. Not only the first but also the most famous, it has nothing to do with Nantucket or Terlingua.

Here is God’s Own limerick.

Our Father who art in heaven
Hallowed be thy name
Thy kingdom come
Thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.

Some dork will call you on the rhyme of the second line, but limericks are defined more by rhythm than rhyme scheme. Tell them when Jesus first created the poem in whatever form of Hebrew they spoke back then, that “name” and “heaven” rhymed. Not many can prove you wrong there.

Whoever actually did translate the prayer for the King James version must have done it limerick form on purpose. You don’t just fall into that 8-6-4-4-8 beat thing by accident. Maybe the old monk or whoever it was had been drinking with Irishmen who started conversations with, “There once was a girl from Regina.”

I heard a guy at Pearl Street Bagels tell this nice looking girl that Jesus spoke Yiddish. She said that wasn’t true, that her Jesus was a Southern Baptist and none of them talked in Yiddish at all.

I seem to be on strike. I went down to the Cowboy Bar looking for someone to picket, but they weren’t shooting any movies, so I left. People say this Hollywood drama is like pro football players striking— millionaires trying to cut other millionaires out of the cut — but I disagree. Writers of TV and movies are being shafted by the non-creative types at the top, who have been somewhat Draconian in this deal. As the saying out there goes for writers: “You can make a killing, but you can’t make a living.”

There’s also an old Polish/blonde/North Dakota/fill-in-the-blank joke about the woman who went to a movie set and she wanted to get ahead so she slept with the writer.

I’m on page 300 of the fourth book of the GroVont trilogy. For those of you who haven’t read the story so far, the first three books take place in 1963, 1973, and 1983. At the end of the 1983 book, Sam Callahan’s mother, Lydia, went into hiding after the Secret Service discovered she’d Fed Exxed a poison chew toy to President Reagan’s dog.

Now, in 1993, Lydia has been let out of prison. Her community service requirement entails taping an oral history of a 100-year-old codger named Oly Pedersen, who appeared in a paragraph or two of each of the other three books.

Did you follow that?

I’ve been searching for a title for a couple of years. At first it was “Oly and Lydia,” but that then Garrison Keillor started telling Oly and Lena jokes on his show and I gave it up. Then it was GroVont IV. I hate movie sequels that use numbers because no one involved was creative enough to come up with a name, so I threw that out. Then I read about this experiment where they hooked people up to a lie detector machine and read them lists of words, and the two words that caused the greatest emotional response were “Mother” and “Blood.” So, naturally, I named the book “Mother’s Blood.” My editor didn’t like it. He said a book with that title would not announce itself as a comedy. He said, “Mother’s Blood is dark.” Even though that was a straight line for the ages, I had to walk away.

So — drum roll. The new title of the new novel: “A Clean Catch.”

I can hear you now. “I don’t get it.” For some, the reference may not be obvious. “Clean catch” is a term used by people who are explaining the proper way to give a urine sample. Basically, you whiz two seconds, stop, position the cup, start again, and stop before overflow. This procedure can either be medical or legal. Everywhere you go these days, someone wants your pee.

Anyway, I told my good friend and internet guru (drop him a line if you need a web page designed) Curt the new title and here’s what he wrote back.

“To me the stream is a person. You start off full blast with a big hole to shoot for, but as time goes by, you come to a point where you suddenly have to stop and aim for the cup (society), without dripping, missing, or overflowing. Or the huge hole becomes a tiny cup whether you want it to or not. My dad’s simplification was ‘Piss on it.’ ”

Both of these explanations are brilliant. It’s like when a high school kid writes a paper on your novel and finds all kinds of symbols, metaphors, and motifs you never dreamed of. After you read the paper, you say, “Yeah. That’s what I meant. I just didn’t know it at the time.”

So, all you Blog Commenters — and you know who you are — this is a challenge. I’d like to hear your interpretation of the metaphor behind a novel entitled “A Clean Catch.” Go wild (although keep it short. The rest of us have to read these things).

Years from now, after the strike ends, when I’m interviewed on “The View” and one of those vibrant women says, “Tell us the meaning of the title,” I may go into your very own rap, and you can e-mail your friends and loved ones and say, “Tim stole that metaphor from me.”

How about this: If the title stays till publication, I’ll put the best one you guys come up with in the Acknowledgments. It can’t get more exciting than that.

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I’m off to the Wyoming Book Festival in Cheyenne next weekend. Come on down, if you’re in the area. There will be forty or fifty writers from Wyoming, Colorado, and South Dakota. Maybe a couple from Montana. They have a web page that gives the times and places. I have three events — a talk, a signing, and a panel.
It seems like every mid-to-big town in America has a book festival now days. I’m not sure why, but, God knows, I appreciate it. I suppose there are writers who hate them — there are writers who hate almost everything — but it’s fun for me to be around people who are interested in something I’m interested in. I lived and wrote, every day, in Jackson Hole for over twenty years before I got to know any readers, much less writers. Mostly everyone I knew was either a waitress, a drunk, a cowboy dancer, or a derelict. Or a combination of the above. Looking back, I think maybe there were people in town I might have had something in common with. I was just too busy doing whatever it was I did to meet them.
I made a conscious decision way back when that if I wanted to write I couldn’t downhill ski. This cut me off from 98 percent of the locals, in winter. I figured I had to conserve time and money. Self-evident truth #3. “You can’t obsess on two things at once.”
That’s why they call it obsession. And, for me, I must obsess on a book or it’s a waste of my time to write it and yours to read it. William Buckley can toss off novels between cocktail parties and yachting regattas. Not me.
Let’s give an example of what I mean by obsession on a book.
Because of cowboy dancing to let off tension after a day of writing, I found short-term serial monogamy during the shoulder seasons, between skiing and mountain climbing. By Thanksgiving and Memorial Day, those women were long gone, back to the jocks from whence they came.
The solitude reached its most clinical Christmas of 1984. I was writing Western Swing, which, for those of you who don’t have my work memorized, is told in the first person by Loren Paul and Lana Sue Goodwin/Potts/Roe/Paul. I’d recently finished the fifth draft of Sex and Sunsets, written in the first person by Kelly Palamino, who was secretly one of Loren’s pen names. Are you following this? I had two cats named Fitz and Zelda, and, like so many single artistic types, my cats were considerably more than pets. They were next of kin.
I also had a huge spider plant that took up at least half the front room of my apartment. I decorated the spider plant with Christmas lights and sparkly ornaments. It was quite nice. I didn’t use tinsel that Christmas because the year before Zelda had taken to eating the stuff and it came out looking like two-foot-long silver tape worms.
We had a bunch of presents under the spider plant, all wrapped in shiny paper and decorated with ribbons. The day before Christmas Eve, my friend from way back, Pam, came over to bring me Christmas fudge. She started poking around under the spider plant, looking at the gift cards on the presents.
“This one’s from you to Lana Sue,” Pam said.
“It’s a surprise,” I said. “I think she’ll like it.”
“And this one is from Kelly to Loren.” She looked up at me with a question in her eyes.
“I helped Kelly pick it out.”
“Tim,” Pam said. “You are Kelly.”
“Technically Loren is Kelly.”
“And you are Loren. And Lana Sue.”
That’s when I got a bit defensive. I said the pithiest comeback I could think of, on short notice. “So?”
“So, all these presents are to and from people who live inside your head.”
“That’s not true. Lana Sue bought treats for Fitz and Zelda.”
“Okay, all your presents are either for imaginary friends or cats.”
“What’s your point?”
Soon after that, Pam left.
On Christmas Day I made Grand Marnier spiked coffee and crepes for breakfast. Zelda and Fitz had Purina Special Diet. Then I turned on the radio to Christmas music and we all opened our gifts. Everyone except maybe Zelda was in the proper holiday spirit.
But that night, the Cowboy Bar wasn’t open on account of it being Christmas. There was no one to dance with. We didn’t have a TV and there’s only so much fun you can have with people who aren’t real.
I carried Zelda and Fitz into the bathroom for a family meeting.
“Look,” I said. “Guys. I’m afraid this is turning creepy.” Luckily, for my future, neither one of them said anything. “”We’ve got to take a break from the book. It’s time I got a job. Time I met people who aren’t me.”
Zelda clawed the door, wanting out.
And when Leila gets old enough for me to tell her the stories of my youth, I’m going to tell her this one and, at the end, I’ll say, “And that’s how I started cooking in the Lame Duck Chinese Restaurant, which is how I got interested in China, which is how I came to adopt you. It all began the Christmas me and my characters exchanged presents.”
I imagine Leila will then make me swear to never, ever, tell anyone that story again.

p.s. Those of you writing an English paper on this blog may score bonus points if you know how many times I used the word “which.”

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