About Me

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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 61 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Monday, January 16, 2017

Birds, Brains, and Beauty

From Crafthub.com

Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F, Couey
Written content only

Nature is many things from the violent to the visually stunning.  In some of those things, there is a stunning complexity to the design and execution that would challenge the ablest human artist or engineer.  If we only take the time to slow down, stop, and look closer, we can be amazed.

A couple of autumns ago, I was hiking on a section of the Appalachian Trail near Harper's Ferry, West Virginia.  This section has a very steep ascent called Weverton Cliffs.  The trail zigzags up 600 feet to a hiker's treat, a long, level stretch.  As I was struggling up the hillside, I came across a bird's nest lying just off trail under a good-size sycamore tree.  I picked it up and continued on.  When I finally go to the top, I stopped and sat on a convenient rock to catch my breath.  As I sat there, I began to look at the nest.  This was not the first nest I had seen, but it was the first one I had actually looked at.

I turned it over carefully in my hands and marveled at the intricate way the individual blades of grass were woven together.  The outside was stiff and strong, but the inside was much softer, befitting a resting place for the newborn.  I poured a small amount of water into the inside and watched as every drop drained through the bottom.  When the rain stopped, I realized that the birds would have a dry place to sleep.

It was an impressive piece of engineering, especially when I thought about how such a thing could be constructed.  Humans generally collect all the required materials at the jobsite and and then manhandle everything into place, using power tools, skill, and a set of blue prints. This particular nest had been assembled one or two blades of grass at a time, requiring innumerable trips back and forth, sort of like trying to build a house by bringing one board at a time from Home Depot,  Grass is rather flimsy stuff, one blade at a time, so as the bird flew in with a fresh load, those blades would have to be secured to the tree branch and not float away on the spring breeze.  This would take a lot of time and enormous patience.  The branch would have to be strong and stout, enough to withstand the powerful winds of a thunderstorm.  It needed to be high enough to be safe from ground-based predators, yet concealed from any winged threat.  The nest itself had to be securely attached to the branch so it wouldn't fall, even when the branch was waving back and forth.  Clearly, this was  no simple endeavor.

A human would find this to be a tough thing to do, even with both hands and a brain.  It was remarkable to me that this incredible thing was built by a creature whose only tools was a beak and instinct.

There's something very serene in the act of sitting in the forest contemplating one of nature's marvels.  To think about something very small amongst the very large opened my mind to a new perspective, that the world of the forest is one of many small layers all grouped together.  In a concerto, there are many instruments doing seemingly individual things, yet when all that comes together, we hear the result of communication and cooperation, all elements working together to create a beautiful harmony.

The forest is just such a place.  Everything you find there is supposed to be there.  From the rocks and the dirt to the highest leaf on the tallest tree, along with the creatures that fly, crawl, walk, and slither, all are vital parts to the larger symphony.

It's too easy to speed through our days, concerned only with the big things in our way.  We should all slow down and take the time to contemplate the small, often ignored things that create the world around us.

After a time, I left the nest lying beside the trail and continued my hike.  As I left that spot, I reflected upon the tiny creature that had created that nest, and the genius that construct implied.

I realized that this marvelous thing had come from that thing we so blithely call...a bird brain.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

From the Other Side

From Pinterest.com

by Ralph F. Couey

There are times in life when something huge is looming in our path, a life-changing moment the outcome of which is utterly unclear.  In those moments of shaky anticipation, one can't spend too much time worrying about what may or may not happen. Such breathless foreboding only guarantees the sleepless nights and hollow eyes that pave the road to a nervous breakdown.  

I have adopted the hiker's philosophy implemented at the foot of every long, steep ascent.  One step at a time.  Don't look up, don't look down. Have faith that, even on the Appalachian Trail, hills do eventually end.  To others, this can be translated as "This too shall pass."

Retirement can be viewed in one of two ways. "I'm ready, it's time, let's do this." Or, "I have to do this because the alternative is even worse."  I detailed in previous posts my struggles in recent months which led to that decision.  That my bosses could not have been more compassionate and accommodating made things easier, but in the end, I still found myself on a cold, cloudy Virginia afternoon standing on the outside, looking in.

I'd rather put hot needles in my eyes than re-live the past two months.  But now that I'm on the other side of those events, I can look at them with a bit more pragmatism.  And understanding.

Every change in life involves some kind of personal trauma.  I hated to leave behind...what I left behind.  The exciting, challenging work, the wonderful and awesomely intelligent people I was privileged to work with.  There was cachet in the organization and the mission which lent an air of the extraordinary to my days. As one of my friends put it, "After all this, it's hard to be ordinary again."  There's a tinge of pain to that statement.  Let me hasten to say that this was not about ego, but rather about the personal fulfillment engendered in not just doing work, but performing a mission. We were defending our country, a calling by any definition.

On my last day, there was a ceremony.  People said some really nice things about me, and I gave a perhaps too lengthy speech out of the need to get those thoughts off my chest.  My family was there and got a chance to meet some of those singular individuals.  But after the ceremony, the pizza, and some final goodbyes, I went down to the security office.  There, I sat across the table from a man who had me sign some non-disclosure forms written in very stiff language.  I was read out of my clearances and programs.  I surrendered my badges, and in the final moments, in the friendliest way, I was shown the door.  Several of them in fact, as befits the multiple barriers of one of those undisclosed locations.  

I went to my car, but before getting in, I turned and looked back at that building that had been so familiar for so long.  I probably risked the fate of Lot's wife at that moment, but it is always a moment of disorientation to find yourself on the outside looking back at the forever unreturnable.

I drove to Tyson's Corner where my family awaited.  We had dinner and spent some final heart aching moments with our grandchildren before saying goodbye to them for the last time.  

The next morning, we squeezed all of our remaining belongings into our new used car (the old one would never have shouldered that load) and headed west.  That first day I had intended to go as far as Dayton, Ohio. But we encountered a snowstorm in West Virginia that got heavier in a very short time.  But the time we reached Pittsburgh, we decided to stop there for the night, where our dear friends there opened their home to us.  I fretted about this event disrupting the schedule.  Then, in a startling moment of epiphany, I asked myself, "Why?"  I was not on vacation, so I wasn't burning leave days, nor was there any burning reason why we had to be anyplace by any certain time.  For the first time in several weeks, I smiled.

We left the next day, but instead of a schedule-driven marathon, the drive became more of a desultory ramble.  Each day, we went as far as we damn well pleased, and no farther.  When we reached Kansas City, we stopped for two days to visit with my sister and her husband, as well as take the time to visit some old friends we hadn't seen in decades.  It was a pleasant stay, and when we felt we were done there, we loaded up and headed west again.  

Finally we arrived at our daughter's home in Aurora, Colorado.  As good as it was to see them. it was hard to get my head around the idea that this wasn't a visit.  It was a final destination.

That realization continues to be difficult.  As many places as we've lived, Denver has not been one of them. Plus, thanks to their generosity, we will be living with them for a time until our financial situation sorts itself out.  Because we are in someone else's house, I suspect it will feel like a visit for awhile.  

Familiarity doesn't only breed contempt.  It also helps the acquisition of ownership to a new place. Before long, we won't be totally GPS dependent as we drive around town.  We will find our restaurants, our reliable car repair place, good doctors, grocery stores, theaters, barbers and salons, all the environmental accouterments that turn an alien place into a home town. Eventually, this will become our home, our way of life, and we will say without that momentary hesitation, "we're from Colorado."

The fictional Jean-Luc Picard once said,

 "Someone once told me that time was a predator that stalked us all our lives.  
But I rather think that time is a companion who travels with us on the journey, 
reminding us to cherish every moment because they'll never come again.  
What we leave behind is not as important as how we've lived."

At every stage of life, we leave something behind; a place and a time when our lives orbited a common center with others.  Our hearts ache for what we have lost.  But someday, that heartache will become a cherished memory.  What we did and what we were will fade before the more pressing requirements of what we must do and the possibilities of what we will become as the present evolves into the future.  The past will always be with us; after all, it helped shape us.  Despite the struggles, I will remember those five years with great affection.  

Age will pronounce it's own fate upon us as the calendar unwinds.  I know that my memories will become indistinct and inexact.  But there will be moments when something familiar drifts in on the breeze, and I will be momentarily transported back.  

Despite the certainty of the coming infirmities, I know that what the mind may forget, the heart will always remember.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Post Number 600

Copyright © 2016
by Ralph F. Couey

On November 3, 2006, I opened a blog account with blogger.com. My first post was about a motorcycle accident involving Steeler’s quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Today, a little over ten years later, I am uploading post number 600.

The title came from a moment on a motorcycle trip.  I was riding westward across Kansas, heading towards my night's stop in the town of Liberal.  As the day wound down, the sun was sinking towards the horizon.  The low angle of its light brought a host of those heart-warming tones I call "evening colors."  The wheat fields on either side of US 54, dancing and weaving in those prairie zephyrs were displaying a warm color that I now understood was the origination of the phrase, "amber waves of grain."  As the sun dipped below the horizon, a few remaining clouds turned bright gold.  It was a perfect moment in time.  I recognized that as the day was coming to a close, I was racing the sunset towards night.

I established the blog in order to exercise my growing passion for writing. I felt that by doing this, I could give some air to the thoughts and emotions which had been banging around inside of me for so long, begging for release. About that same time, I began writing a regular newspaper column in the Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat. A few months later, I added the Somerset, PA Daily American to my clients. Because those two towns were only 30 miles apart, I had to write two separate columns each week. But surprisingly, that was never a problem. All of the columns I wrote for those papers, and those I wrote as a contributor to other publications are a part of this website, the titles marked with an asterisk. As much as it was a kick to see my words, and byline, in print, I was much more gratified and humbled by the positive and touching responses. I always felt that my target audience was not the person who read my words and responded with anger and hate, but rather the person who, after reading, would sit back, sigh, and smile.

The subjects upon which I wrote were many and varied, touching just about everything except politics. I felt that as a country, we were already deeply divided, and I had no wish to add to that division. What I have written has reflected the passions in my life. As I look over the post listing, I see that I wrote a lot about motorcycling and hiking, sharing my love for the open road and the forested trail. These activities brought me a great deal of joy…and peace, and I felt it was natural to share those moments, and some of the pictures as well. Some of the images are pretty good (if I do say so myself), but they’ll never match the portrait that in that moment was painted on my heart.

Other pieces talk about 9/11 and how necessary that I feel it is for that day to never be far from our national memory. This is particularly important since those children born afterwards are now moving into adolescence. Our memories of those attacks have become history to them, and it is our duty to give to them that personal connection with a past they did not live. A veteran myself, I have the greatest respect, admiration, and empathy for those young folks who chose to embark on the sometimes difficult experience of a life in uniform. 50 years after Vietnam, we have a new generation of combat veterans, the visibly wounded, and those who will for the rest of their lives carry the invisible scar on their hearts. Many have questioned the reasons for their sacrifice, but my experience tells me that anytime an American puts themselves in harm’s way to help make, and keep, someone else free, then whatever the political rhetoric may say, that service is a worthy sacrifice. As I have noted before, no nation in the history of humankind has ever shed as much blood for the freedom of other countries, other people as has the United States. Most veterans I think would agree that it was our honor to do so.

I have written of the particular beauty of the four seasons, and the gift that our natural world is to us. In some of those essays, I have explored the wonders of weather, not commenting on climate change, but rather writing of the wonder of summer thunderstorms, winter blizzards, and the simple joy of warm sunlight on my face. I have related how the time I have spent in the wild has brought me a wonderful sense of peace, and at times, healing.

I have shared the love we’ve had for the dogs and cats that shared our lives, and the sorrow we felt at their passing. The love of family, and the humorous, mundane, and the sorrowful experiences that are always a part of any family’s story. As my journey has unwound, I have written about those events that have changed my life, and changed me. I have tried to convey to readers not only the mistakes I made, but how they could avoid making the same errors. I don’t pretend to be a wise man, but I have come to learn that true wisdom comes from the inevitable nexus of experience and pain.

I have a love, and a great respect for history. Starting in 2011, coinciding with the 150th anniversary, I began a series of monthly pieces in which I recalled the events leading up to the Civil War. And in April, I began to chronicle the events of the war itself, from the battlefield to the halls of government. Studying those events helped me to understand not only the “what’s,” but the “why’s” of that conflict; to try to give meaning to the approximately 750,000 lives lost, and the wounded who survived. I have always hoped that we as a nation would study those tragic events and understand them enough to learn and therefore prevent those mistakes from happening again. As I look across the landscape today of our deeply divided and angry population, I am sorrowful enough to realize what an ephemeral thing hope truly is.

The Universe has held my fascination, ever since this once-young boy gazed in wonder at the stars. The learning I have sought, and the education I have received has expanded my perceptions, understanding how impossibly massive our universe truly is, and also considering the mind-blowing possibility that ours may only be an anonymous member of an infinite number of universes. I still maintain that the human species has a deep desire to explore; to know the unknown, and even the unknowable. While the dream of interstellar travel remains a dream, constrained by the very real laws of physics, I still feel very strongly that we should be aggressively pursuing the exploration of our own solar system. There are millions of unanswered questions that lie in the Sun and its family of planets (major and minor). But our musing should not stop there. Beyond Pluto lie the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud, a mass of primordial rocks and snowballs within which we may discover the stubbornly-held secrets to creation itself.

I believe in God, not the one that exists in the three-dimensional box, the walls of which are defined by the limits of human understanding, but rather the presence that exists on a dimensional plane infinitely removed from ours, and whose existence is therefore unprovable by human science. Linear distance is a dimension, as is time itself. I believe human consciousness is a plane all by itself. I believe that the thing we call soul or spirit is the part of us that can traverse those dimensional planes, but can only do so once it has left the human vessel behind. That state we call death is then nothing to fear, since that which is truly us continues to exist. That doesn’t mean that we should willingly cast aside our lives. We are here for distinct and individual purposes, the nature of which may take a human lifetime to become apparent. We are gifts to each other, and we should always honor that gift.

I know that there are those who insist that there is no God; that deities are the irrational invention of needy humans. I respect that point of view, and understand the…genesis, if you will…of those feelings. But if you choose to not believe in God simply because you can’t scientifically prove that existence, then I invite you to show me a handful of dark matter.

I have written much over the past decade, and I am honored that many of you have chosen to take the time to read my words. I am facing now a major change in my life, leaving my career behind and embarking on what in a very real sense is the first days of the rest of my life, to quote a piece of ‘70s mantra. In the past few years, I have not had the time I wanted to write, as the periodicity of these posts demonstrates. Now it seems that all I will have is time. I will try to use it to its fullest, to turn these final years into something much better than just waiting around for the end.

I have written in humor and whimsy. I have also written through the pain of an aching heart and a veil of tears.  There have been many times when despite hours of soul-searching, I have utterly failed to come up with the words necessary to express what I felt.  I know this is a common frustration of writers, but that doesn't make it any easier to accept the failure.  But know that whatever you see here, you can be assured that it is my life and my feelings in all their delicate fragility laid bare for you to explore and experience.

Thank you for reading, and for those who passed these links along to others, you have my gratitude. I would encourage all of you to spend some time writing yourself. Don’t worry about structure or correct grammar. Simply write from your heart. There you will find all the profound beauty you will ever need.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Great Upheaval

Copyright © 2016
By Ralph F. Couey

It was a cold, but bright and beautiful morning.  The night before, freezing rain had moved in and had coated the 8 inches of snow with a veneer of ice.  It was the kind of surface that guaranteed some heart-stopping sledding.  My friends and I met at our customary place, a moderately steep hill.  At the bottom, we had built a jump ramp which we figured would give us enough air to span the rocks of Mill Creek.  

Getting there was difficult, as the icy top of the snow kept us falling frequently, only occasionally crunching through the surface.   Finally though, we stood at the crest of the hill.  The sun was well up, and it's light reflected on the surface, turning the hill into something that resembled a huge sheet of glass.  Now, we were adventurous youth, but some tendrils of mortality crept into our collective brains as we began to realize that disaster could await us at the bottom of the hill.

Me, being me, decided to go first.  I waxed the runners and flipped it over, laying down on the top.  With a brave-sounding "YEEEEHAWWWW!!!!" I started down the hill.

I hadn't gone a hundred feet before I realized something was very wrong.  The icy surface was very fast, but gave me absolutely no way to steer.  The runners, instead of creasing the surface were just skittering across it like a waterbug.  About halfway down, I knew I was in trouble. The sled began to swing back and forth, at times going sideways.  I tried to dig the toes of my boots into the unyielding surface, but to no avail.  About 50 feet from the ramp, I was in a full panic.  I was headed downslope, faster than I had ever gone before, and with absolutely no control.

That memory has come back to me as my life has unfolded, and unraveled, over the past two months.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Age and the Betrayal by the Mind

From University College London Brain Sciences

Copyright © 2016
By Ralph F. Couey

Throughout our lives we are burdened by a self-imposed delusion that we are somehow bullet-proof and immortal.  This is probably a reflection of the common insecurity that we all carry with us, whether latent or manifest.  But age has a way of shattering delusions, as we come to grips with how fragile a thing humans are.

It started a couple of years ago with memory problems.  When you're 61 years old, that's usually something to joke about.  But as time went on, things got worse, affecting the quality of my work.  My superiors, despite my difficulties, were massively patient.  Finally, out of an abundance of concern, I scheduled myself for a series of appointments with people whose specialty is the brain.

My first concern was the possibility of Alzheimer's, or early onset of senility.  I remembered my father's last two years of life when he was afflicted by both.  Bit by bit, he drifted away from us.  Towards the end, there were times when he couldn't recognize anyone.  I did not want to be that guy, especially this early.  I love my grandchildren, and the absolute last thing I wanted was to see the hurt on their faces when Grampa didn't know who they were.

I went to a neuropsychologist who put me through a battery of tests, lasting several hours.  I waited anxiously for the results which took about a week.  The results were both good and bad.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Preparing for the Final Frontier

Alpha Centauri A and B

Proxima is inside the red circle

Image By Skatebiker at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46833562
Copyright © 2016
by Ralph F. Couey
Except cited portions

On September15, 1965, the CBS television network debuted a new science fiction show entitled “Lost in Space.”  The Irwin Allen production followed the adventures of the Robinson family who were being sent on an interstellar mission to find a new place for an over-populated earth to call home.  The show was known far more for its campy style than anything else.  The main character became, not the Robinson’s, but the evil conniving Dr. Zachary Smith, who had snuck aboard as a foreign agent to sabotage the mission, but managed to get stuck there when the ship took off.  He was certainly the most buffoonish foreign agent ever, in addition to being a sniveling coward of the first order, and the episodes mainly revolved around Smith doing foolish things to get the Robinson’s in trouble.  It was not intellectual by any stretch, but managed to stay on the air for three seasons before being canceled, according to statements by cast and crew, due to declining ratings and increasing costs.

So what, you may ask.  Well, the destination for the Robinsons and their saucer-shaped Jupiter 2 spacecraft was Alpha Centauri, long known to be the closest star to our own solar system, about 4.2 light years away. According to the plot, there was a planet there that could support human life and it was the Robinson’s mission to survey the planet and report back.
As it has turned out, Irwin Allen seems to have been a prophet.