Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Damn That Autocorrect!

Nearly everyone in my family uses an iPhone. So when I gathered with family at Christmas, we all were being nerds, checking our iPhones for text messages, e-mails, playing games, etc.

Well, I wasn’t playing games, but I am guilty of incessantly checking for e-mails and reading stories from various newspaper websites when I should be paying attention to an actual human being sitting across the table. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to soften my addiction to the digital information overload.

Anyway, over brunch at Kerby Lane on the outskirts of Cedar Park recently, all four of us were playing with our iPhones, which is when the younger folks told me about a couple of websites devoted to the goofy — and often profane — messages that result from not paying attention to the iPhone’s autocorrect feature when text-messaging. As always, I thought, “Dang, wish I had thought of that.” Story of my life.

I know there are some folks out there reading this who don’t text message. Good for you, seriously. The reality is that for people under, say, 35, this is preferred to actually talking on a phone or e-mailing. I have learned that I am far more likely to get a response from one of my adult daughers if I TM them. If I leave a voice mail or e-mail, it could be days before they respond.

For those who barely know what an iPhone is, yet alone own one, it is a mini-computer/phone that allows you to do lots of cool stuff. This is no endorsement of Apple’s products. That will require a cash payment that is to date not forthcoming. I’m not holding my breath. Here’s the deal. When you type a text message on an iPhone, it suggests words when the software thinks you have misspelled something. If you are typing quickly, the suggestion takes the place of what you have typed, and you quickly could have sent a message that contains words and phrases utterly unintended.

This is not a problem for geezers like me, who attempt to ensure whatever we write is as grammatically correct as possible. I self-edit everything, even TMs. Not to say I don’t mess up, but it’s not from a lack of effort. Turns out, lots of folks who TM on an iPhone don’t bother to see what autocorrect has done to their messages before they hit the “send” tab. The results are hilarious.

Parental Discretion Note: These sites contain scads of adult language, either because of the inadvertent conversions by autocorrect, or the irritated reactions from the message senders. I had to work at finding family friendly messages to post below. Way I figure, life is funny and at times a bit profane, though I draw the line as usual at putting anything in print that my mom would find offensive. Or your mom, for that matter. But here are several samples of some funny auto-correctiveness:

Are you feeling OK?
No just feel sick to my stomach today.
Take some ammonium

Lol. Damn autocorrect. You prob think I’m trying to poison you.
I was gonna say I’m not drinking windex

• Only time will tell if we incested wisely.
I mean invested oooops lol
Haha what a typo gonna face book that

• I’m getting my loin charged.
Loon charge

• Grandpa bought me a corndog from the devil.
From the devil?
Wow…deli haha

• Can you come over tonight?
I can’t. I have to feed my hostages.
*grandparents. Jeez

Wow, sorry I asked. Haha
You can come eat if you want. I’m cooking ham. Promise I won’t take you hostage

• Momma, I have baked pot if you haven’t eaten.

I just wanted to say: I love you.
Oh, babe. I love you too. So much.
If I could, I’d buy you a casket.
Gah! A castle! Damn auto correct. Way to ruin a moment.
I definitely do not want you in a casket.

• Are you on your way?
Yep! I’ll be home in about 15 mins with the LSD!
Aaaah! Kids! Not LSD!

That would have made for an interesting night, babe.

As Art Linkletter used to say, “Kids say the darndest things.” Especially if they’re TMing.

Originally published in the Hill Country News (Cedar Park, Texas), December 30, 2010.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Wishing You a Merry Christmas

My favorite Christmas display this season isn’t found in any of the homes and yards bedecked across the neighborhoods here, though there are many lovely sights. I am a sucker for big ol’ Texas-sized Christmas light displays.

These decorations are on a half-dozen or so scraggly cedar trees out Farm Road 1431 a few miles north of town, on the left. First there were just one or two trees on the shoulder decorated in bright garland — red, green and silver. Then a few more joined the crowd, then a couple more, so now at least a dozen cedars wave Merry Christmas to vehicles passing along that busy highway. I salute the elves responsible.

Memories of Christmases past, stories I’ve told before:

There was a Christmas tree lot in Nacogdoches I passed each day on the way to work in December 2001, the first Christmas after 9/11. About 50 trees perched on an asphalt lot, each nailed to a wooden cross of one-by-fours. Each day I would make a silent bet to myself how many trees would be standing after the winter wind blew through. Each morning the owners would trudge out from their well-used motor home to right the fallen trees.

One day, just one tree was standing. I silently named it the hero tree. I would have bought it except I already had a tree. That season, the Elton John song, “I’m Still Standing,” kept running through my head as I passed that lot — with the lone tree still standing. We were knocked down, as I wrote back then, but we got back up. We are still standing still.

Christmas afternoon of 1984 I headed to town, which was San Augustine, a tiny place in Deep East Texas where I ran a weekly for five years.The presents were opened, lunch eaten, wife and children napping, so I decided to see what was going on around the square. As usual, Sheriff Nathan Tindall was present, meaty hands perched on his ample belly. Christmas was just another workday for him. I walked in, and he said, “C’mon, let’s go. We need to check on somebody.”

We headed down one red-dirt road, then another, finally arriving at a shack in the middle of the woods. A gap-toothed man came to the door, which was open despite the bitter cold. Tattered plastic flapped from the windows. The cracks between the boards were wide enough to slip your fingers through.

The old man's face was blackened from hovering over a sooty wood stove. He was trying to warm a cup of frozen coffee, brown sludge in a dirty cup. The man didn't seem to be terribly unhappy about his fate this Christmas afternoon. Clearly he needed help.

The sheriff hauled out a kerosene heater from the patrol car’s trunk that a hardware store owner had donated. He lit it, and we left. I asked why the man didn't check into a nursing home or something. He didn't want to, the sheriff said. Several folks had tried to get him to, and he fought them tooth and nail.

I took the old man’s photograph as he stood out on the porch, talking to the sheriff, a skinny dog watching the exchange. The photo still hangs in my office, a constant reminder. The old man died a year or two later. They found him frozen to death in that shotgun shack.

My earliest memory of Christmas is from a half-century ago. We always spent Christmas Eve at my maternal grandparents’ house outside of Concord, N.H. The tiny house was filled with cousins bedded down most everywhere. I was lying in my grandparents’ bed, looking out the window, which was narrow and near the ceiling, so you could see the stars if you were on your back looking up.

I saw Santa Claus streaking across the sky and realized I had better get to sleep, or the old man might skip this house. My cousins would really be upset with me. Sure enough, in front of the fireplace the next morning were gifts from St. Nicklaus. The plate of cookies held only crumbs. The carrots for the reindeer were gone.

I know. I didn’t really see Santa Claus. Probably it was an airplane headed to Boston, or perhaps a meteor shower. But it’s a powerful childhood memory that has stuck with me for a very long time.

Here's hoping you make some memories this holiday season. Merry Christmas to all of you, and God Bless.

Originally published in the Hill Country News (Cedar Park, Texas). December 23, 2010.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Another Granddog Arrives

The third granddog unexpectedly arrived last weekend while I was peddling books at my hometown bookstore in Longview. Barron’s hosts book-signing events for area authors a few times each year. Its owners, Jim and Julia Barron, have been in business since 1972. I perused the shelves of their original Golden Hour Book Store on High Street while in high school. Now located across from the mall in a strip center, in order to keep selling books they now sell all sorts of stuff — fancy china and glassware, jewelry, cool kitchen gadgets. They even run a successful café in the store that is quite popular. Jim and Julia are two of my favorite hometown folks. They work hard, love books, and are kind to writers.

I was peddling my second collection of columns alongside five other authors. Since this is my hometown, and I wrote for the paper for more than 15 years, Barron’s is one of the better venues to unload some copies before Christmas. (Note from the Shameless Commerce Division: “The Loblolly Chronicles” is available from my Web site — — on, or from Book People. Or at Barron’s, of course, if you’re in East Texas.)

After a time my Beautiful Mystery Companion and her daughter, the 13-year-old Abster, arrived for moral support. They disappeared after a little while. I would like to say I was so busy signing copies that I didn’t notice their absence, but I’m not Stephen King. Or even Rick Perry. He has better hair. Actually, they both do. Every 10 minutes or so someone would show up and buy a copy, for which I was grateful. But I had plenty of time to wonder where my peeps had gone, until they knocked on the window and motioned for me to come outside.

They were accompanied by a smiling woman and a ball of fur wrapped in Abbie’s arms. My newest granddog, a poodle-Yorkie-mix rescue puppy, had arrived from the pet store down the sidewalk. I was being pressed for approval, allegedly because of my vast experience with dogs. The smiling woman, who volunteers much of her time housing abandoned dogs until homes can be found — what my BMC rightly calls God’s work — learned I once was a dogcatcher.

“Animal control officer,” she swiftly said in correction. I knew then she was a fellow alum. I spent six months in Nacogdoches in college driving a smelly van, wearing a blue uniform with a cheap badge — no weapon — and looking for stray animals. It is a necessary job, but I hated it. My friends and relatives weren’t happy with me having the job, because I became a dognapper. By the time I landed a job at the newspaper, I owned five dogs and had foisted dogs on most of my friends. Even my mom, who said she couldn’t stand dogs, ended up with a cocker spaniel named Susie. Whatever it took to keep them from the needle.

So what to do? I was staring into the brown eyes of a an adorable fluff-ball, trembling slightly but calm in Abbie’s arms. “Go for it,” I said. “This puppy looks like a keeper.”

Of course, it was easy for me to say this, since it’s a granddog who lives five hours east of here. But someday that dog will — with luck and good fortune — be part of my household as well, along with the two-legged folks. My brother, who accompanied me on this trip back home, and I did what we could to provide dog advice before returning to Central Texas.

There have been some mishaps, being a seven-week-old puppy. The pooch, tentatively named Rosie — which allows me to call her Rosalita after the Springsteen song — is not a fan of American history. I drew that conclusion not long after we left to trek back and got a text message that the puppy had peed on Abbie’s history final study guide. Maybe science is more to Rosie’s liking, I suggested.

Expect some sleep-deprived nights, I warned. But lots of love will follow. There’s likely no purer love than a dog for a child. So I’m glad to be a dog-father once again.

Originally published in the Hill Country News (Cedar Park, Texas), December 16, 2010.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Hanging Christmas Lights, Working Up a Sweat

I spent the Monday night after Thanksgiving stringing up a few modest strands of Christmas lights around the front door and porch. Sweat was pouring off my scalp and into my eyes. It’s great to be back in Texas where the Yuletide season can mean wearing shorts and flip-flops one day — and the next bundled up after a blue norther howls through.

Living in Central Texas means winter is just a concept — an event we briefly encounter before it is once again 70 degrees and T-shirt weather. I never want to live anywhere that playing golf in December or January isn’t at least a possibility —though I rarely play anymore.

For the first time, I bought an artificial Christmas tree. Upon arriving in mid-October I leased a house with carpet because that was the lone downside to the place. I am not a fan of carpet and especially not of vacuuming Douglas Fir needles out of its pile for the next month. So, though my oldest daughter voiced her objections that I was rebelling against family tradition, I went to the Big Orange Box Store when the post-Thanksgiving sale hit and bought a tree in a box. Made in China, of course.

If it had not been for a broken light bulb that kept one strand of lights from working and took 10 minutes to discover and replace, the tree would have been up and working in at most five minutes. In years past it has taken me five times longer than that just to get a natural tree upright in the stand. The nadir in my tree-mounting career came a quarter-century or so ago. This was before smart people went to work designing tree stands that actually worked. Remember those metal, three-prong stands that were barely stable before one put a tree inside? That’s what I was using on the day I hammered the stand through the carpet and into the wooden floor with three shiny #10 nails.

I ended up buying new carpet after Christmas.

The Tree in a Box, lights already interwoven among the branches, is a big hit, though I was a bit annoyed that it shed artificial needles while putting the three pieces together. But that only happened once. At least I don’t have to worry about keeping the stand filled with water.

The ease with which I was able to dispatch with Christmas decorating has left time for my other December pastime — mowing my backyard. Besides carpet, the other minor drawback to this house, which I immediately noticed, was that the backyard had been planted in rye grass. The previous tenant owned large dogs whose ramblings left large bare patches, which the landlord feared would wash out in the winter rains — if they ever arrive.

So he had rye grass planted and set the sprinkler system to come on every few days. In the spring he promises to re-sod the backyard. In the meantime, since I’m a conscientious tenant, I both pay the water bill and mow the rye grass — whether it’s 40 degrees or pushing 80. This conjures up memories of the time I seeded a half-acre yard in San Augustine with rye grass, figuring it would look pretty in the winter — as indeed it did. But after realizing I could actually witness the grass growing as I sat on the porch drinking a beer in January — having just finished mowing — I bought a couple of cows.

That house was in the country on six acres, so this was an option not available to me in this Cedar Park subdivision. I checked; no goats allowed, either. Heck, you can’t even have chickens! When it comes time to buy a place, I’ll have to find somewhere the rules are a bit looser.

I’m not complaining, honest, though mowing while wearing a sweatshirt after the cold front blew through is, well, not a common Central Texas experience. The rye grass looks just lovely after being mowed. Thank goodness the front yard didn’t need the rye grass treatment. The backyard can be ignored to just short of requiring a hay baler, since nobody can see it. Thus the homeowners association hasn’t come calling.

Besides, it sure beats shoveling snow, which is what soon awaited me if I had stayed in Kansas. I prefer mowing any day.

Originally published in the Hill Country News (Cedar Park, Texas), December 9, 2010

Friday, December 3, 2010

Finding Sanctuary in the Woods of Oklahoma

Come away to a secret place and stay for a while.
— Mark 6:31

HOCHATOWN, OKLA. — That quotation from the Gospel of Mark was on a kitschy sign titled "Sanctuary." It was on the end table in the living room of the log cabin where my Beautiful Mystery Companion and I retreated the weekend after Thanksgiving. The sign is hokey though the message certainly isn’t. I discover that, at least, the sign is made out of recycled newsprint that has been pressed into a wood product. I’m always happy to see newspapers recycled into something other than fishwrap. Plus, the sign is made in the USA. I was shocked to not spot the ubiquitous "Made in China" label on the back. Nope, the sticker says the sign was made in Siloam Springs, Arkansas — not that far from where we're staying. Something kitschy made in America; imagine that.

Hochatown skirts the Ouachita National Forest, bordering Beavers Bend State Park in southeastern Oklahoma, a few miles from the Arkansas line and maybe 30 miles north of the Red River. With Broken Bow Lake next door and whitewater streams abounding, it is a popular outdoor recreation spot — especially if you live in East Texas, as my BMC does. In just two hours we can be hiking trails in hilly terrain while watching fly fishermen in hip waders cast their luck into the current. Log cabins for rent are scattered throughout the area. We're holed up in one on this holiday weekend, enjoying a respite from our busy lives, asphalt and work.

As I write this, the only sound besides my finger bouncing off the iPad is the hissing of the gas logs in the fireplace. It got close to freezing last night, so even the birds seem to be sleeping in this morning. But it promises to be a lovely day for hiking, admiring the foliage, which is in its last week or so of showing off, maybe snapping a few photographs.

Both of us crave a few days of solitude at least a few times a year, with no Internet access or newspapers, just narrow hiking trails and God’s beauty to wrap around ourselves for too brief a time. A wraparound porch with ceiling fans and rocking chairs are also appreciated. We walk, read, nap, watch movies at night in the glow of the fireplace, eat simple fare, mainly Thanksgiving leftovers.

I mentioned hiking. Our favorite spot here is the Beaver Lodge Trail because it parallels fast-flowing Beaver Creek, which provides a lovely musical background as the water flows over the rocks. Surprisingly, Oklahoma state parks don’t charge anything for day use, though campers pay a modest fee. Perhaps as a result, the state has a laissez-faire attitude about hiking its trails, which aren’t terribly well-marked. At least the Beaver Lodge Trail isn’t. The brochure warns that it is challenging. It doesn’t mention that it wouldn’t take much of a misstep to tumble a couple hundred feet down a steep, rocky hill with one’s descent only halted by either a tree or a boulder before one ended up in the icy water of Beaver Creek.

That is such a refreshing attitude. I don’t know about you, but that whole nanny state approach gets old sometimes. I tire of being warned of the dangers of, well, just about everything from what we eat to standing on the top rung of a stepladder. Out here in Hochatown, we’re walking on a narrow rocky trail that at several points forces one to concentrate on each step one takes — or face the consequences. That does tend to clear the mind of extraneous thoughts.

The area is aptly named after beavers — the park, creek and trail. We pass several fresh examples of the buck-toothed creatures’ handiwork, hardwood trees five or six inches in diameter felled by persistence. Most places curse beavers for the havoc they wreak. Here, they have been turned into part of the tourist industry, which is what fuels this part of the state, where there is little industry or much else to bring in money.

I kept thinking about the sign in the cabin. Sanctuary: A secret place to stay for a while. We all need that from time to time. For a brief time, we found ours.

Originally published in the Hill Country News, (Cedar Park, Texas) December 2, 2010