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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 58 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

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Big Bang Theory and William Shatner

Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey

I discovered the hit television comedy "The Big Bang Theory" later than most.  But once found, it became must-see television.  The premise, for any of you who may have been under a rock for the last few years, is a group of three scientists and an engineer, hard-core geeks all, who work at an analog for Cal Tech.  Leonard is an experimental physicist, Sheldon a theoretical physicist, Raj, a particle astrophysicist from India, and Howard the engineer, and lately, astronaut, incidentally the only non-PhD in the group except for Penny.  Sheldon and Leonard share an apartment across the hall from Penny, an aspiring actress.  Howard lives with his mother, a prototypical Jewish mom, and Raj lives alone.  Much of the humor derives from the collision between Penny's world and the science fiction and comic book-dominated universe shared by the four guys.  As the show has matured, Sheldon acquired a girlfriend, Amy, a neurobiologist (played by real-life PhD Mayim Bialik), and Howard married a microbiologist, Bernadette.  Raj, however, remains without a regular girl after a long series of disastrous dates.

For someone who grew up on science fiction, notably Star Trek, Star Wars, Lost in Space, et al, this was a series made in heaven.  The writing is always good, if esoteric, and I'm not ashamed to admit that I "get" the sci-fi references.  I also understand the characters, which may or not be disturbing.

The show has intersected with real life icons such as Neil Degrasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking, comic book legend Stan Lee, Bill Nye the Science Guy, astronaut Mike Massimino, Battlestar Galactica's Katee Sackhoff, and Star Trek actors Brent Spiner, Wil Wheaton, LeVar Burton, and George Takei adding to the joy of the legion of dedicated fans.  Leonard Nimoy has lent his inestimable talents as well.  For some time, fans have dreamed and schemed of a way to bring William Shatner, Captain Kirk himself to the show.  I have an idea I'd like to share.

The plot involves mixing art and reality.  Katy Cuoco has been appearing in commercials with Shatner for Priceline, the discount planes-trains-automobiles-hotels website.  In this plot, Penny comes home to announce with great glee that she has landed a national commercial.  Through the shooting of the spots, she becomes good friends with her co-star, who she knows only as "Bill," and invites him to the gang's regular Friday Chinese foodfest.  Sheldon, who abhors change, throws a fit about adding a person, an unknown, to the group.  In the days leading up to the dinner, Penny, Sheldon, and Leonard clash about the invited guest.  Penny, of course, having absolutely no clue about anything geek, let alone Star Trek, doesn't realize that she's invited the iconic Captain Kirk to dinner.  On the night of, Sheldon continues to resist, saying at one point, "I'm a scientist, engaged in the pursuit of the secrets of the Universe.  I have no time to spend an evening with some old guy named "Bill."  

Then from the doorway, that familiar voice booms, "That's "Mr. Shatner" to you."

The reactions of the four guys is predictably hilarious, and I leave the remainder of that scene to the writers.

Campy?  Yes.  Kinda-sorta dumb?  Maybe.  But at least it gets Shatner in the show.  

I didn't bother sending this idea to Messrs Lorre and Prady, as I've discovered from previous bitter experience, folks in that business generally do not like to get ideas from outside their circle.  I'm sure there are potential legal and intellectual property issues involved, but it's still a shame that lawyers can stand between two people and an idea.  Oh well...

I haven't been a fan of series television, particularly sitcoms for many years.  Moonlighting, with Sybil Shepherd and Bruce Willis, was a wild ride of rapid-fire humor and creative use of the fourth wall.  One of my favorite episodes of any show was the sendup they did on Taming of the Shrew. That same bang-bang approach to humor drew me to Gilmore Girls.  But Big Bang always seems funny and fresh, and a veritable reservoir of creative ideas.  

But even the best shows run out of ideas and storylines, and go stale after a number of years.  The cast members get tired of their character and want to branch out.  Or perhaps the audience, always so fickle, may just drift away, and Big Bang, like so many other series, will quietly fade away. When that happens to this show and this cast, I, for one, will mourn the loss.

But what a ride!


Friday, April 11, 2014

April**



Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

*Johnstown, PA  Tribune-Democrat
March 27, 2011
 as "Spring ushers in life reborn"

*Waterbury, CT Republican-American
April 9, 2011
as "Ode to April, the gateway to spring"


"No Winter lasts forever, no Spring skips its turn. 
April is a promise that May is bound to keep."
 -  Hal Borland

Ahhh, April!  Stand we now on the cusp of spring, the season of rebirth and renewal.  Behind us, winter reluctantly slinks back into the cold cave of its slumbers.  For long months, it has reigned supreme.  But now, finally, it is retreating; beaten, vanquished, cowering in defeat.

Oh, how we have waited!  Through those short gloomy days and long cold nights we could almost feel the life draining from us.  We were teased with days of sun and thaw, only to see the ground covered the next morning in yet another blanket of white. 

"We need spring. We need it desperately;
and, usually, we need it before God is willing to give it to us."
-  Peter Gzowski

That Other Shoe**


Airport picture from the FAA website. No attribution listed.

Copyright © 2007 by Ralph Couey
Written content only

*Chicago Tribune
May 27, 2011
as "The view from the other side of the counter"

*Somerset, PA  Daily American
May 28, 2011
as "Check Yourself"

As summer time approaches, doubtless many are planning to hit the road, or the skies, enroute to destinations ranging from Grandma’s to the Grand Bahamas. Doubtless also is the almost dead certainty that our national air transportation system, already creaking at the seams, will rupture in ways certain to test the already-thin patience of travelers.

As fuel costs have soared, airlines have been forced into cutting services and staff.  Adding to that are the horror stories of passengers “imprisoned” for as long as 10 hours as their aircraft sits on the tarmac while food runs out and toilets overflow. And hovering over this whole mess are the counter-terrorism security measures which now include body scans and diaper searches.

And ever-present in the back of all our minds is the reminder that the horrors of September 11th could happen again.

Humans can take only so much, and people sometimes erupt, spewing their venom in every direction.  On the receiving end of that lava flow are the visible airline employees

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Son Rise

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

It’s early morning; the sun has just risen.  It is quiet and peaceful, such a contrast to the chaos of yesterday.  Jesus had been arrested, betrayed by one of his own disciples (with a kiss, no less).  Throughout the long day, He had been beaten, insulted, whipped, and rejected by the very  people He had blessed and healed.  After a long, agonizing walk uphill carrying a heavy wooden cross, He was crucified.  And most remarkably, the last moments before his died, He asked God to forgive those who had killed him.
His body, once taken down from the cross, was given to Joseph of Arimathea by the Roman Procurator, Pontius Pilate.  His remains were prepared according to tradition, although hurriedly because the Sabbath was about to begin.
For those who had followed Him in His ministry, the brightness of this morning had been dimmed by the knowledge that the light of their world had been taken from them.  They mourned not just the death of a man, but the death of their last hope.  It seemed that the heavy hand of Rome would never be lifted; the corruption of their government would never be cleansed.
Into the graveyard very early on that bright morning came three women.  In their hands thy carried myrrh and oils with which to anoint the body of Jesus.  Suddenly, they stopped short.  They saw that the large stone sealing the entrance to the tomb had been rolled away.  The Roman soldiers guarding the tomb were in a seeming stupor.  They leapt to the logical conclusion:  Somebody had stolen the body of Jesus.  Inside the tomb, they saw the empty shroud.  But the also saw two angels clad in shimmering white.  One angel spoke to the women, saying, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?  He is not here, but He is raised.  Behold, here is the place where they laid him.”

Monday, April 07, 2014

Loss...And Life

Leia
2001-2014

Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey
Image and written content, except quotes.

“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened. ” - Anatole France

They come into our lives, small, innocent and utterly helpless.  In those first weeks, they are completely dependent upon us for food, shelter, health, and most importantly, love.  After a while, we no longer look at them as animals, but family; even children.  In return, we receive their complete love and devotion; playmates, soul mates, and on sad days, the perfect companion.  They make us laugh, give us comfort, and when it seems that the whole world has turned on us, they greet us with unbounded joy when we return to the sanctuary of home.

Humans first began keeping animals somewhere between 15,000 and 30,000 years ago.  They were, of course, working animals, helping the humans in various ways, including providing security.  We found that once an animal identified a family as their "pack" they would protect the members of that group, even at the risk of their own lives.

Today, when a person brings a pet into their home and life, it is mainly for companionship.  Over time, a lot of love becomes invested in such an animal, be it dog, cat, snake, or parakeet.  But the lives of these animals are short.  Even the most long-lived of them is less than two decades.  So there will inevitably come a day when that beloved pet passes from this life and we are left with a particularly aching sorrow.

A couple of weeks ago, we received a text from one of our daughters in Colorado.  Her cat, named Leia, had been found in intense pain.  At the Veterinary Hospital, she was diagnosed with a kidney stone.  Further tests showed that Leia had been in chronic renal failure for some time.  One of her kidneys had apparently shut down perhaps as much as two years ago.  As the hours passed, her condition became more acute.  Finally, her last kidney ceased to function and this 13-year-old beloved pet passed away.

This cat had led an interesting life.  Our oldest daughter, Nikki, and a friend were out in a classic Missouri thunderstorm when they heard mewing sounds coming from beneath a porch.  There they found a feral mother and a litter of her newborn kittens.  Knowing the ways of wild animals, the two women donned heavy gloves and moved cat and kittens to a safer place.  But somehow in the transfer, two of the kittens had been touched.  Now, with the smell of human upon them, the mother abandoned the two.  The kitten that our daughter adopted was all white with dark eyes.  As any true Star Wars fan would have done, she was named after George Lucas' star-crossed princess.

She was tiny and unbearably cute.  Nikki took care of her as best as she could, but she was living the Haight-Ashbury life at the time and eventually for her safety, Leia ended up with us. 

As she grew, she displayed some endearing personality quirks.  She was affectionate, but only on her terms.  She wouldn't tolerate being picked up and cuddled.  But if you sat still long enough, eventually she would jump up on the opposite end of the couch, and slowly work her way down until the point where she would crawl into your lap.  She lost fur in impossible amounts, perhaps due to the stress of living in a household with three teenage humans, three dogs, and two other cats.

I don't have to tell you that we didn't do much entertaining.  Of human guests, anyway.

When I changed careers and my wife and I moved to Pennsylvania, Leia came with us, yowling every mile of the long trip.  Once in PA, she settled in and lived what could have been termed a normal life.  She was much more affectionate now, I guess only having two humans, a dog and another cat gave her fewer beings among whom to divide her attentions.  On those long weekends when we would drive to Maryland to visit our son and his family, she would stay alone in the house, looked in on by a kindly neighbor.  But as soon as we returned, she would stand at the top of the stairs, glaring imperiously while she meowed her disapproval.  Once, after being gone for an entire week, her vocal reaction was so vigorous that I told my wife that it had been the first time I'd ever been cursed at by a cat.

She lived with another cat, another case of reverse-inheritance, a coal black cat with bright yellow eyes and the restless spirit of a college frat boy.  Ebeneezer, or "Ebbers" for short, got along well with Leia for the most part.  However, our neighbor, the kindly cat sitter, would tell tales of watching Leia asleep in the sun on the back porch being stalked by a panther-like Ebbers.  At the climactic point, Ebbers would take a flying leap and land on the sleeping Leia.  Our dog, Tweeter, one more reverse inheritance, handled life with two cats pretty well, although for some reason once in a while, he would charge out of a dead sleep, chase Leia twice around the house and out the pet door in back.  Why he did this was mystifying, since at all other times they seemed to enjoy a friendly relationship.

Then one morning, Ebbers didn't come home.  We had given up hope of trying to keep him confined inside at night, and around midnight, out the pet door he would go for his nightly galavant.  Somerset has a rather large herd of feral cats, which he had fought with on numerous occasions, often arriving home at daybreak with a collection of cuts, yet wearing a look of smug satisfaction.  We never found him, and had to assume that he had finally tangled with a cat that was just too much for him.  Leia and Tweeter both mourned Ebbers' loss, seeming to find comfort with each other.  

One night, we were in the basement watching television when Tweeter sprang out of a sound sleep and ran baying up the stairs as if pursuing the hounds of hell.  I followed him up and watched as he stood before the pet door, his bark changing from alert into full-combat mode.  I flicked on the porch light, and saw Leia cowering under the lawn furniture, her back arched at a painful near-right angle.  Then I saw what had upset them both.  An enormous black cat, 30 pounds at least, a member of Somerset's feral tribe, had cornered Leia, and apparently was about to make entry into the house, an invasion halted by the insane canine just inside.  With the light on and it's night stealth gone, the cat turned it's evil and malevolent eyes towards me in a cool and calculating way, and then vanished at a speed that left me breathless.  Tweeter, having saved Leia's life, heroically gave chase, but by the time he got through the pet door, the cat had cleared the yard.  I recalled Tweeter, and gently picked up the quivering mass of nerves and falling fur that Leia had become and brought them both inside.  From that night on, I locked the pet door.

About this time, Our youngest daughter asked us to bring Leia to Colorado for Christmas and she would then re-adopt her.  Surprisingly, she handled the flight very well, not complaining until we put her in the car at the airport.  Having lost Ebbers, we were saddened to have to leave Leia, but it was clear that there with Jamie and Frank she would be loved and lavished with attention.  Plus, for her there was a real benefit.  In the living room sits an aquarium built inside one of those big, hulking wooden television consoles, circa 1970.  In front of this furniture, Leia would sit for hours, watching the languid motion of the tank's inhabitants.  She had found the aquarium channel.

The year after, we did Christmas again in Colorado and had a chance to see Leia again.  After convincing her to come out from underneath the bed, she welcomed us in her own inimitable way.

And now, she's gone. 

We will never know why or how these animals are able to so completely get under our skin and into our hearts.  Maybe because they are so dependent on us, and freely give so much of their affections and loyalties in return.  Perhaps because of all the relationships we have, this is one in which there is never any judgment.  Only love.

Over the years, our pets come in and go out of our lives, always leaving behind memories which will resonate forever.  Leia's "brother" Tweeter will be 15 this year.  His health is good, save some arthritis and the beginnings of cataracts in his eyes.  But in the days since Leia left us, I have spent more time with him, talking with him, stroking his fur, and going on walks now that warmer weather is finally upon us.  I don't know how long he'll be with us, but I feel I must begin to prepare myself for that inevitable moment when he leaves us as well.  In a lifetime of hard days, that will be a particularly tough one.

But he, along with all the other pets who have touched my life, has taught me something important, a lesson that only a pet can teach.

The absolute purity of unconditional love.

“Love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.” - Khalil Gibran

Monday, March 24, 2014

What We Want, What We Can, What We Will Do


"Three things are necessary for the salvation of man;
to know what he ought to believe,
to know what he ought to desire,
and to know what he ought to do."
-- Thomas Aquinas

Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey
Except cited and quoted portions.

Every human ever born came into this life with a dream.  Separated from all the other wants and desires, it is a dream that arises from the recognition by the soul of the gifts and talents singular to that person.  Essentially, it is the assessment of what can be built using the raw materials available.

That collection of specialities is different for every person.  My son is a genius of sorts in the computer field.  Consequently, his work language is largely mathematical.  When I look over his shoulder, I see a page filled with number and notations, pi, theta, delta, sigma, tau, omega...   It is a language that, alas, will forever be indecipherable to his father. You could say that it's all...um..."Greek" to me.

I have become a writer, of sorts.  No, I haven't written The Great American Novel, though I have been a columnist.  While I can't translate mathematics, I have been able to recognize the momentum of thought and emotion from the heart and mind and translate that into words, phrases, and sentences.  Most times, that process is slow and frustrating.  But occasionally, the walls are felled, the gates are opened, and those impulses flood directly from the heart to the fingers, at a rate which challenges the hands to keep pace.

This is, for all intents and purposes, what I want; my desire, if you will.  For everyone else, that desire is particular to each one.  It may be the elegance of a perfect equation, or the production of something beautiful from a piece of wood, a lump of clay, a jar of paint.  My sister, a career educator, has spoken of that magical moment when a teacher witnesses the light of comprehension dawning in the eyes of a student.  I remember the words of a mother after seeing her child, now an adult, graduate from college.  "In that moment, I realized that all the effort, all the pain, all the worry and sleepless nights over the last 21 years expended in trying to shape a life had finally been justified.  My child has achieved; therefore as a mother, I have also achieved."

Monday, March 17, 2014

Motorcycles and Hard Economics

The Object of My Dreams and Obsessions
Taken by Ralph Couey in Fort Valley, Virginia

Copyright © 2014 by Ralph Couey
Picture and written content

Ownership, or more accurately, the relationship with a motorcycle is unique in a person's experience.  It is transportation stripped to its bare essences, and thus a journey is less one of physical necessity and more of a spiritual exaltation.  As I have written ad nauseum, the hours and miles spent in this kind of communion are priceless for those who truly understand the essence of the ride.

But, like all things, this comes at a price.

Motorcycles are a different animal than cars.  They require a great deal more attention to details such as tire pressures and oil change intervals than do cars.  Mainly because when something breaks on a car, the owner is still inside a steel cage wrapped up in a cocoon of seat belt and airbags.  When something breaks on a motorcycle, it can, and does, result in very mortal outcomes.  Safety requires upkeep, which requires $$$.

My mechanical skills are limited, as are my collection of tools.  Hence, when my bike needs something, I turn to my local factory-trained neighborhood wrench.  This is especially true in that time of year when winter is finally driven back into it's dark, cold cave for another year.  The sun warms the air, the snow disappears, the spring rains wash the road of sand and salt.  And after months of painful dormancy, motorcycles hit the roads.

The Need for Endless Speculation

MH 370
From www.ibtimes.co.uk

Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey
Written material only.

It was a Saturday, March 8th.  A Boeing 777, one of the most advanced and safest airplanes in the world lifted off from Kuala Lumpur International Airport for a regularly scheduled flight to Beijing in the People's Republic of China.  The flight was tagged by the International Air Transport Association as Malaysian Air Flight 370.  By all expectations, it was expected to be a routine trip.  But 40 minutes into the flight, something went terribly wrong.  For reasons that were, and still remain, utterly unknown, the aircraft made a hard turn to the west, descended almost 40,000 feet in one minute, and then vanished.  The transponder and other communication devices had been deactivated, apparently in a deliberate attempt to evade detection.  The engines continued to ping satellites, a maintenance-related automatic communication back to the engines manufacturer Rolls Royce in England.  The last surmised location of the airliner could have been either over the southern Indian Ocean, or near Kazakhstan.  

Today, nine days later, the aircraft, and the 239 souls aboard, remain missing.  

This incident, or incipient tragedy, has consumed the attention of the world.  Even a pending war between Russia and it's former client state Ukraine over the Crimea seems to have taken a back seat.  A big part of the attention has to do with the shared incredulity that in this age of GPS, satellites, radar, and a sky filled with some 90,000 airplanes each day that something as big as a jumbo jet could simply vanish without a trace.

This is, unfortunately, not the first time.  Since 1910, some 160 aircraft have disappeared from the skies, without leaving a single clue as to their fate.  Perhaps the most well-known and most researched was the loss in 1937 of a Lockheed Electra with pilot Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan somewhere near Howland Island in the Pacific.  The last passenger plane to disappear was a de Havilland Twin Otter under the banner of  Merpati Nusantera Airlines which disappeared in 1995 while flying across the Molo Strait enroute to Ruteng, Indonesia, along with its 13 passengers and crew.  Bad weather was the suspected culprit.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A Few of My Favorite Things, Part II

Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey

I have been fortunate in that I have been well-traveled.  To date, I have been to 49 states and 28 countries and as many others who have trekked similar distances, those experiences have fundamentally altered my view of life.  

In my youth, I accompanied my Dad on his summer journeys related to his church work.  This meant hitting the road for two of the three summer months mostly taking in church camps across the country.  We traveled far and wide, he and I, bonding in ways that kept us close even through my tumultuous teen years.  The dominant memory of those summers can be encapsulated into the experience of sitting in a campsite sanctuary on countless humid evenings listening to his sermons as the power of his voice competed with the sawing chorus of cicadas in the dark woods beyond.  Those were good years.

Later on, I joined the Navy. In the next 10 years, I saw not only the world, but learned a lot about the people who populate those places we Americans rarely think about.  I also learned that people in this country who complain about being poor really don't know about the privation and struggle that is true poverty.

Throughout all those years, and all those miles, several places have stayed with me, having planted themselves in my heart.  These are a few of my favorite places.

Streets of Hong Kong
From Bugbog.com

Hong Kong has been called many things, the most well-known eponym being "The Pearl of the Orient."  I first set foot in this jewel during April of 1981.  I had been aboard my first ship for a couple of months, fresh out of "A" school.  It was my first foreign port, and I fell in love with the city within minutes of beginning my first liberty ashore.  Hong Kong has been for a long time a major financial and economic hub in the Far East.  When I was there, the colony still belonged to Britain, and the English imprint was noticeable although far more understated than I had expected.  The incredible thing about this city is its energy.  It is a pulse of excited urgency that seems to rise from the sidewalks right through the soles of your shoes.  Life here is lived at full throttle and its impossible to not be affected.  The people of Hong Kong are every day consumed by the business of survival.  Most live in hovels that are little bigger than a fair-sized closet, but they are only there to sleep.  The rest of the day is spent doing business.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Time, Age, and Documents

Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey
My mind is on a journey, but not one on a road that is straight in this dimension.  Sometimes I see my thoughts in the way of a housefly frantically bouncing from one window screen to another, trying desperately to free itself.  My attention span is thus ephemeral.  There just seems so much to ponder.
Last week, I overheard a conversation between two ladies in an elevator.  It seemed that one of them had suffered the death of her father the previous year and she talked at length about how difficult things were at the end.  It seems that he had never expressed a preference for either burial or cremation, and this seemed a terribly important, and difficult, thing for them to resolve.
It was a moment like so many others riding in that nondescript vertically-moving cube when the lives of complete strangers intersect for a few moments of time.  Usually, what is said there, and heard there, flits from my conscious thoughts.  But this conversation left me with some thinking to do.
I must confess that I look at death differently from most.  Buried somewhere in this blog, like a dusty box in the attic, is a posting about an incident that happened in the spring of 2003.  After decades of suffering mindless abuse, my heart finally put its "foot" down, and put me on notice.  Two arteries were almost completely clogged and I ended up in the Cath lab at Boone Hospital in Columbia, Missouri.  During the procedure, my heart quit and I..."went away" for awhile.  The resulting experience, complete with the de riguer tunnel and white light, left me with a certainty that death...what we call it, anyway...was in fact life, just on a different level.  I'll spare you the details, except to say that I felt a lot of different emotions, but fear was not one of them.
I don't fear death.  Lest you think me crazy, let me hasten to add that I still fear the process of dying (big, big pain baby here), the actual transition has lost its mystery.  I know now what to expect.  I also know, based on that experience, that I'm not yet done here.  I will know when that particular bus arrives.
See?  Here I go, wandering again.
Anyway, as a result of the elevator thing, I decided to produce a document that would state to my children (adults, really) and my wife what my decisions I had made.
This letter told them about what to do if I became brain dead (the real brain dead, not the everyday condition of being a husband), that I desire to be cremated and where I wanted my ashes scattered.  I also told them about what to do with me when I became too old and infirm to care for myself.
And I told them that I loved them.
We don't have a formal will, and yes I know we need to get one drawn up.  But what this document does is settle any concerns that may come up in a very stressful situation.
I have encouraged my wife to draft one as well, and when that is done, we will get several copies notarized, one for each of the kids, and one for us.
Some of my friends think this is a morbid thing to do; one called it "barbaric."  Again, it all depends on one's view of death.  But I feel better that this is done.  One more item on the checklist.
I really have no expectations as to how long I will remain on this planet.  I ride a motorcycle, commute in one of the most dangerous cities for traffic in the U.S., and I have five pieces of metal bracing various arteries in my heart, so the odds are somewhat similar to a long-dormant volcano which has begun to rumble and smoke.  It's not about if, but when. 
Losing my fear of The End was a liberating moment.  I can now focus on the important things.  Like enjoying my grandchildren.


Monday, March 03, 2014

A Few Thoughts on the Rudeness of March Snowstorms


"Winter is nature's way of saying
"Up Yours."
--Robert Byrne

Copyright ©2014 by Ralph Couey

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with snow.  When it first falls in November or December, I welcome its artistry, if for no other reason to cover up the dull brown of late fall.  Snow is expected, in fact desired around the holidays, and through the long dark tunnel of January and February.  But when March rolls up, I don't think its unreasonable to begin to look for some breaks in the weather.  Now, I don't live in Syracuse, Duluth, or Billings, where snow probably falls up through Memorial Day weekend.  I have chosen to live in more temperate climes.  After the Snowmageddon winter of 2010, Virginia enjoyed three years where actual winter weather was rare.  This year, however, winter made a return appearance.  Snow totals are up, not as high as 2010, but the thing that has made this year so hard to bear has been the unremitting cold.  

I'm older and my circulation is not what it once was, so I'm much more sensitive to the cold than in the past.  So this endless day-after-day cycle of frigid temperatures has the effect of wearing a person down.  Now, we have had a few days where the sun shone and the mercury soared into the 60's but that tease was immediately followed by another long stretch of cold.  Also, I ride a motorcycle and am regularly afflicted with what we riders call PMS, an acronym which stands for Parked Motorcycle Syndrome.  I am, by nature, a cautious rider, so even on warm winter days, the collection of sand, salt, and cinders on the roads makes riding a more dicey proposition.

Today, another large storm passed through this area, the second large one in a couple of weeks, this one dumping some 8 inches of fresh powder.  Once again, we left the warm sanctuary of the house to join our neighbors in shoveling.  I've never liked shoveling snow; and as I get older, I like it even less.  I'm beginning to understand the attraction seniors have for places like Orlando and Phoenix.  Soon it will be time for me to decide which I dislike more.  Oppressive heat and humidity, or shoveling snow and persistent cold.

A Few of My Favorite Things, Part I

Copyright ©2014 by Ralph Couey
Images from various sites on the Internet

Humans have designed and built incredible things, but I think the most miraculous are those machines that helped man to, in the words of John Magee, break the surly bonds of earth.  The ability to fly was once the sole province of birds.  But since the Wright brothers first powered flight in 1903, the ability to soar into the sky has become so common that it is difficult to find someone in this country who has never rode in an airplane.

Flying initially was a way for the military to improve the way they went about their business.  But entrepreneurs soon saw the market for global air transport.

It is perhaps ironic that some of the most beautiful aircraft that ever took to the skies were those whose business was dealing death.

I fell in love with airplanes at an early age.  My father traveled a lot, and I remember many evenings when we would make the trek to old Municipal Airport, literally in the shadow of downtown Kansas City, to see him climb aboard a multitude of airliners bound for destinations throughout the world.  When he was home, sometimes on Sunday afternoons, we would go to the airport and park in a lot set aside for people to watch the planes take off and land.  I thought that was just a perfect way to spend an afternoon with my Dad.  Though I chose the sea from which to serve my country, I remain fascinated by flight.

Over the years, some airplanes have become favorites of mine, for various reasons.  Probably the first favorite I had was the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress.  This rugged, yet beautiful plane was the mainstay of the US Army Air Force during the daylight bomber campaign against Germany.


It was fast, for its day, had long range, a heavy bombload, and could defend itself with 10 to 12 machine guns.  For my Dad and I, the old TV show "12 O'Clock High" was must-see programming, and it was in those episodes that I grew an affection for the Fort.  I was at Long Beach Airport one afternoon when a B-17 paid a short visit.  After asking, I was allowed to stick my head into the door and hatch, seeing the interior for the first time in person.  And breathless I was when the plane taxied to the end of the runway and that signature roar of those four Wright Cyclones thundered across the field as the plane raced down the runway and soared into the sky.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Milestones and Steppingstones


Twenty years…where’d they go?
Twenty years…I don’t know.
I sit and I wonder some times
Where they’ve gone.
--Bob Seger

 Copyright 2014 © by Ralph F. Couey

October is my favorite month of the year, for a variety of reasons.  The oppressive heat and humidity of summer is a fading memory.  The sky has become a dome of pure cobalt blue.  And all around, the green of the forest is being overtaken by the vivid reds and brilliant golds of that annual show of artistry that is autumn.  I sometimes think I merely endure the other eleven months just to get to those 31 remarkable days
It was last November 1st, and I was out running, chugging up that exasperatingly long hill that is Cedar Lane, when I realized with a bit of a shock that October had ended.  I remember feeling how unfair it was that something so anticipated and so enjoyed could arrive and disappear almost before it seemed I'd had a chance to look around, or even draw an appreciative breath.  Part of that, I know, is the perspective of age.  The older we get, the faster time seems to pass.  Unless you’re getting a root canal.
We can get so caught up in the “have-to-do’s” and “gotta be there’s” that crowd our schedules, regretting the past, fearing the future, that we can become completely oblivious to those marvelous moments of the “now.”  Those moments can appear in several ways.  You can be hanging with your best bud, laughing and having a great time, when suddenly you realize that you’re experiencing that perfect moment of friendship.  To hear that joyously uninhibited sound of a good old-fashioned belly laugh coming from a child who will never again be that cute.  Or that young.  Looking across the room at the love of your life and getting a smile in return.  Not just any smile, but that special one; the one they save only for you.  To walk beneath a Maple tree on a perfect fall afternoon at the same moment the wind passes through the limbs and showers you with leaves of gold.  A private, very personal ticker-tape parade pronouncing that life...your life...is worth celebrating.
These moments are ephemeral; filaments, really.  But these are the filaments that when woven together form the richly beautiful tapestry that tells the story of life.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Civil War: Events of April 1864


From April 3 to April 4, Union and Confederate forces fought at Elkins Ferry in Clark and Nevada counties in Arkansas.  All the bridges crossing the Little Missouri River had been destroyed.  Union General Steele ordered General Frederick Salomon to take and hold the remaining river ford at Elkin’s Ferry.  Three cavalry brigades under Confederate General John Marmaduke attacked the Union position, but was unable to take the position.

On April 4th, Phil Sheridan takes command of the cavalry forces in the Union Army of the Potomac.

On April 8th, Confederate forces commanded by General Richard Taylor defeated and decisively routed the Union force under Nathaniel P. Banks at Sabine Crossroads (also known as Mansfield), halting the Red River Campaign in Louisiana.

Also on April 8th, the historic 13th Amendment, outlawing slavery, was approved by the Senate and sent to the states for ratification.

On April 9th, Nathaniel Banks, retreating from the defeat at Sabine Crossroads, is attacked by Confederates under Richard Taylor.  Despite some initial success, Banks launched a counterattack that defeated Taylor.

On April 9th, Grant issues campaign orders to George Meade and William Sherman:  “Wherever Lee goes, you will go there.”

April 10th saw Union General Frederick Steele’s forces encounter a Confederate line of battle at Prairie D’Ane, about 100 miles southwest of Little Rock, AR.  Steele was marching towards the vital port of Shreveport, but was diverted towards Camden after the Confederates under Sterling Price were forced to fall back.  Steele turned his force toward the heavily-defended Camden, which his forces then took.  But Steele and Banks then withdrew to Grand Ecore and Little Rock.  Kirby Smith took command of the Confederate troops and ordered Taylor to move back to Mansfield.  The Red River Campaign was over.

Civil War: Events of March 1864


The force of 500 Union cavalry dispatched by Judson Kilpatrick to the west side of Richmond was turned back, and then trapped by the Lee boys, Custis on March 1st, and Fitzhugh on the 2nd.

The U.S. Senate confirmed the appointment of Ulysses S. Grant to the rank of Lieutenant General on March 2nd.

On the 4th, Republican Michael Hahn is inaugurated governor of Louisiana.  On that same day, the CSA officially adopted the “Stars and Bars” as its official flag.

On March 9th, Grant was officially promoted to three-star general and placed in command of all active U.S. forces.  He can now pursue the war without interference from General Halleck in Washington, the first U.S. commander to be so empowered.  Three days later, General Halleck, his position and authority now irrelevant, is relieved of duty at his own request

Civil War: Events of February 1864


On the first day of the month, the U.S. House passed legislation reinstituting the rank of Lieutenant General in the U.S. Army, paving the way to giving Ulysses S. Grant to run the war without interference from Washington.

On the 3rd, William T. Sherman opened the Meridian Campaign, a thrust into central Mississippi to break up Confederate communications and infrastructure, and to cement Union control of the vital Mississippi River.  His troops marched into Jackson on the 5th.

On the 7th, Union forces entered Jacksonville, Florida.

February 9th saw a successful escape of 109 Union officers from the notorious Libby Prison in Richmond.  59 officers actually reached Union lines.

President Lincoln attempted, unsuccessfully, to rescue 6 horses from the White House stables when a fire broke out on February 10th.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Sea and Serenity


Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey
both image and written content.

The ocean draws me; inspires me. Heals me.  To stand on the shore of a continent and gaze out to sea is to experience humility.  And infinity.

Our planet is mostly water.  So are we, for that matter.  The life that evolved to be us arose from the oceans, and even today salt water flows through us.  So it's perhaps not surprising that the allure comes from so deep inside of us.

The sounds of the sea inspire deep thought, or no thought at all, as the mind surrenders to the peace of one's soul.  I don't know anything that is more peaceful than the rhythmic beat of the surf.  An impulse, generated thousands of miles distant begins to rise as it approaches the shore.  At a certain point the wave curls forward and the water falls to the sand with a sort of muffled "boom."  Afterwards comes the hissing of the foam as it races across the sand, loses momentum, and slides back.  The sound is soothing, the sight hypnotic.  And it is endless.  To listen to that steady beat is to feel release.  All the sadness and anger, the burdens of life are released and replaced by a sense of balance;  of peace.  

At no time are one's emotions so touched as at sunset.  The shadows lengthen and the light, filtered through the horizon, changes to a softer, more contemplative tint.  The clouds along that horizon begin to pick up and reflect the sun's rays, turning them from white to burnished gold.  On a calm day, that beautiful light is mirrored by the surface of the sea, and the whole world takes on a scintillating beauty found nowhere else.

It is a time and a place for reflection.  People seek these moments when answers to difficult questions remain elusive.  It is here that those answers reveal themselves, as gentle in their arrival as the soft breeze on velvety summer's night.  

Eventually, we must turn away and return to the noisome clamor of our lives.  We go, however, renewed and refreshed; imbued with a new sense of possibility.  And submersed in a new serenity.

For it is in the murmur of the sea where we shall find the peace we seek.


Plagues and Possibilities


Copyright © 2014 by Ralph Couey

This past year, I received a gift from my sister in the form of a book entitles "A Distant Mirror" by the inestimable Barbara Tuchman. Ms. Tuchman can best be described, not as an historian, but a writer who loves history.  This is a benefit to the reader of her many books, as the writing style is a more lyrical narrative that is easy to read, easy to follow, and a great source for learning.

Her list of books includes "The Guns of August", the history of the complex interrelationships among the European powers that led directly to World War I.  It was a book that seemed to have a beneficial influence on President Kennedy as he maneuvered the U.S., and the world, through the crucible that was the Cuban Missile Crisis.

My sister chose the book on the strength of my research into our family history.  I had been able to peel back the years into pre-Medieval France, capturing a connection, admittedly still ephemeral, to the powerful clan of knights known as de Coucy.  Tuchman's research revealed new details to me about this powerful family, at one point considered stronger than the throne of France.

However interesting that was, I found myself captured by the recount of the human tragedy we know as the Black Plague.

Between 1348 and 1350, a pandemic of Bubonic plague grew out of central Asia, spreading along the primary trading route known as the Silk Road.  The disease hit that region hard.  Rumors reached Europe claiming that as many as 23 million had died in India and some 20 million in China.  The Mongol hordes penetrated to the gateways of Europe, bringing the plague with them.  During the siege of the trading city Caffa in the Crimean, the Mongols catapulted infected bodies over the city's walls,  In terror, the inhabitants fled.  Some went by ship to the port of Marseilles in southern France.  The primary vector of infection, the fleas of infected rats, went with them.  From there, the pestilence spread with terrifying speed.  Within a year, people all over Europe were dying at rates that defy modern comprehension.  Exact numbers are hard to come by, but it is estimated that as much as 60% of all Europeans perished.  World wide, the human population was reduced by 100 million people.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Why We Go to the Show

Mentally, he's on the road aboard Honda's new Valkyrie.

Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey

Every year, I attend the traveling International Motorcycle Show, lately sponsored by Progressive Insurance.  A big part of my motivation to do this stems from my heartfelt commitment to The Ride, lovingly accumulated over the past 20 years.  The other motivation is rooted in my dislike of the first two months of the year, a period of time I have come to call "The Long Dark Tunnel."  The show hits Washington DC usually in mid-January, thus providing a nice reminder that despite the gloom and cold of Winter, spring, and another riding season is on the approach.

There's a lot to see at these shows.  The major manufacturers display their entire lines, and unlike most dealerships, people are encouraged to swing a leg over and sit on every one.

The criteria a choice for a particular bike is different for every rider.  The first criteria is deciding what kind of riding a person is going to do.  That determines the type of motorcycle to buy.  Sport bikes, the powerful high-speed types commonly referred to as "crotch rockets," sport tourers, almost as fast but designed for the long haul, standards (also called nakeds for the lack of body panels), cruisers, the iconic beefy American design.  Adventure tourers, also called dual sports, which appeal to those who prefer the back woods and trackless deserts along with regular paved surfaces, dirt bikes, basic frame-and-engine designed purely for off-road use, and of course, the big baggers, the touring bikes which carry loads of luggage and every comfort and convenient device ever conceived for motorcycles.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

The Flight of Time*


"Time Flies"
A Custom Wood Carving from
http://www.beauhavenwoodworking.com/


*Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, April 4, 2010
as "Perception Governs View of Time"

Copyright © 2008 by Ralph Couey
Written content only

A couple of years ago, I penned a sentence in another essay about the passage of time:

“As children, we rush along, impatient to grow up. We them spend our adulthood sadly wondering why we didn’t take our time.”  That sentence has been bouncing around inside my brain since, teasing and tormenting me in the way that elusive ideas sometimes do.

We humans have an uncertain relationship with the passage of time. Scientifically speaking, time is always the same. Whether seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, or decades, they all pass at the same rate. The last five minutes of a timed test, or five minutes of a root canal is the same five minutes. What changes is our perception of that time.

It’s a universal part of the human experience that when times are good, the minutes tick by like fenceposts alongside a speeding car. In bad times, those same minutes seem to crawl by at a speed that would make a glacier look like Jamaican Gold Medalist Usain Bolt. Also, as we grow older, the passage of days seems to accelerate. But science aside, perception is what governs our view of time.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

A Year By What Measure?


Super strands of galaxies
From unseenmoon.wordpress.com
 
 

Copyright ©2014 by Ralph Couey
Except image.
 
This calendrical thing we call "a year" is, of course, the calculation of the time it takes for the Earth to complete on lap (or orbit, if you prefer) around our star.  That's 365 days, measured as a fraction over 24 hours, the time it takes for the Earth itself to make a complete spin on its axis.  Those days are broken into 12 months which at first were established according to the phases of the moon.  Nearly everyone knows this.
 
I was thinking the other day (admittedly a hazardous undertaking) about time and space and a question occurred to me. 
 
How do we really know we've made the lap?
 
If I'm going to take my dog Tweeter for a walk around the block, I have a fixed point for starting and ending.  But space has no fixed reference point because everything is in motion.
 
The Earth orbits the sun, which in turn orbits the center of the Milky Way galaxy.  The Galaxy moves in a complex gravitational dance with other galaxies within the local group.  The local group, arrayed as part of a larger strand and superstrand of thousands of other galaxies moves in response to their interactive gravitational fields.  And the whole ball of wax continues to expand outward from that mysterious point in space and time where the Big Bang brought it all into existence.  Here on the surface of this planet, reference points on land are fixed and recognizable.  (Yes, I know the continents are drifting around on the mantle, but let's not megger this thing up any worse, okay?) 
 
So if there are no reference points, how do we know we've made that circle?  There's no finish line, and since the sun's surface is a constantly changing oatmeal-looking mass of incandescent gas and magnetic fields, no one can point to a place that might be used as a start/finish line.  It would seem that trying to determine a finish line in space would be like trying to find your car in a shopping mall parking lot while someone is driving it around.  The only clue really are the cycle of the seasons.
 

Saturday, December 21, 2013

From Behind the Beard*

The author...um...behind the beard!

*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
December 25, 2010
as "Santa Memories Always Special"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

For 17 years, I've been privileged to be a Santa. What started out as a favor to a friend has become an unforgettable part of Christmas.

It is safe to say that there is no more recognizable symbol anywhere in America, perhaps the world, than the bearded jolly old elf in red and white. From the youngest toddler, to the oldest centenarian, all recognize Santa for who he is and what he represents. For kids, he is unconditional love, and perhaps a moral and ethical rudder.  That hearty "Ho! Ho! Ho!" never fails to lift spirits and bring smiles.  He always brings gifts. You never know what it'll be, but like the Wells Fargo Wagon from "The Music Man," "..it could be somethin' very special just for me!"

One of my special Santa memories occurred, oddly enough, in the middle of summer.

It was a hot, humid miserable Missouri July afternoon.  I was cruising the aisles of Target, searching for a few items when I saw them.  

Friday, December 20, 2013

Christmas Prayer for the Bruised and the Broken-Hearted


Kind and Loving Father,

It is with joy that we celebrate
the miracle of your Son's birth.

In this season, we often find ourselves safely
within the loving arms of our family.

But even in this time of joy,
we know there are many who are alone.

There are those whose family has disintegrated
and scattered to the winds.

There are those who have lost loved ones
to accident, disease, or time.

There are those who, for whatever reason,
are completely alone in this world.

Santa's Prayer for the Children


Our Father in Heaven,
I kneel before you as your humble servant.

It has been my honor to serve you these many years,
sharing the message of unconditional love, generosity, and acceptance,
which is, after all, your blessing to us all.

I bring presents to children the world over,
but no gift I can carry equals the gift
that you gave to us all:

The life of your Son, Jesus.

I want to express my thanks for this gift,
but also to share my burden.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Veering Off the Path of Hate


Copyright © 2013 by Ralph F. Couey
Except for quoted and cited portions
 
People must learn to hate,
and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love.
For love comes more naturally to the human heart.
 –Nelson Mandela 

It was a moment that has happened all too frequently.  Regular programming was interrupted and in that familiar stentorian tone, we were told of yet another school shooting.  This one in Colorado, only 8 miles from the scene of that tragedy in 1999 that forever changed our lives.  A student had walked into his high school armed with a shotgun and opened fire.  This one, however, ended quickly.  The teacher who was the student’s intended target left the school.  The 18-year-old, seeing the approach of an armed deputy sheriff, turned the gun on himself.  But not before shooting a young girl in the head, a girl who now lies in a coma, her survival unknown.
Most Americans inwardly moaned, “Not again!”  Faces became grim, heads were shaken, and people of faith offered prayers.
The political response was entirely predictable.  Those on the left demonstrated for stricter gun control laws.  Those on the right blamed the culture of casual violence in television, music, and video games.  They were both wrong.  The right’s claim on violence in entertainment, while disturbing, seems to fail on the fact that tens of millions of kids play those games for hours on end and nearly all of them will go through their lives without committing a single act of violence.  The left’s position on gun control also collides with the fact that this was a legal gun purchase by an 18-year-old adult (in the eyes of the law, anyway) who had no history of police involvement, violent behavior, or mental or emotional problems that would have shown up on even the most stringent background check.
But the media attention, curiously, was rather short this time.  Cynics have suggested that this was because the only death was the shooter, and the incident, unlike Columbine and Newtown, only lasted a few minutes, or perhaps the revelation from his classmates that he was a committed socialist, wearing shirts regaling the former Soviet Union.