About Me

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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 63 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.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

At Last!

"Victory belongs to the most persevering."
--Napoleon Bonaparte

Copyright © 2019
by Ralph F. Couey

There is an incipient sense of unreality permeating those abused souls who call themselves fans of the Kansas City Chiefs.  The game is over, the score is official.  Arrowhead Stadium has been drained of fans.  Yet, in years past, such a situation was fraught with sadness and frustration after watching yet another playoff collapse.

But not tonight.

The Chiefs won a home playoff game.  And won it decisively for only the second time in a quarter-century.  Fans of other teams, particularly the Patriots, will find the resulting joy puzzling.  But no fans in the NFL have been put through the emotional ringer like we have.  I won't recount all the previous disasters since the networks spent a lot of time today dissecting that mournful trend.  But all week Reid, Mahomes, and Company were telling us the same thing:  The past doesn't matter.  We weren't here for that, but we're here now and this is going to end differently.  And they were right.

The Chiefs dominated in every aspect of the game, as the stats so graphically illustrate.  After those first three three-and-outs, the Colts were never really in this one.  But there were moments when Chiefs fans felt the brush of the wings of death flapping around our shoulders.  A blocked punt that became a touchdown.  A fumble deep in Chiefs territory that gave Indy the ball inside the 20.  A late drive capped off by a long bomb to the end zone.  The Chiefs offense shut out in the second half until a garbage time TD.  All those things had happened before.  Insurmountable leads were surrendered, with the opponents scoring on horribly unusual plays that could only have been dreamed up by Rod Serling.  But that scenario, that Shakespearean drama did not suddenly appear.  The time ticked down to zero, catching the Colts unable to run a last play, again something that happened to us in the past.  

Suddenly, without warning it almost seemed, the game was over.  The Chiefs... had WON!!!

Like the sun coming out after a day full of gloomy rain, all the doubt, all the despair, all the heartache of the past was gone.  I can't speak for anybody else, but frankly for a few moments, I didn't quite know how to feel.  It was like someone who had struggled with poverty their whole lives was suddenly holding a seven-figure lottery check in their hands.

Hours later, it still feels weird.  I think I was so prepared for another ghastly loss, so convinced that the football gods, if any exist, had inflicted the mother of all spells on Kansas City.  Now I have a new feeling to process:  Victory.  And hope.

This thing ain't over yet.  Next weekend, the Chiefs will welcome to Arrowhead either the Patriots who have a culture of winning that spans an entire generation, or the Chargers who are to the Chiefs  a bad case of gout.  Either team will be a supreme test for the Chiefs.  But after next Sunday, if the stars align and Mahomes doesn't break his leg, the Kansas City Chiefs for the first time in a half-century will be on their way to Atlanta for the Biggest Tamale of all football tamales, the Super Bowl.

Next Sunday, I will be in Kansas City, joining my son who is flying from Maryland.  We will file into the stadium and find our way to a pair of ungodly expensive seats to witness, win or lose, the AFC Championship game.

The forecast is for temperatures in the upper 40's to mid-30's during the game, and no snow, unlike today's blizzard bowl.  And all things considered, that's a pretty nice day for the midwest in mid-winter.  But after five months living in and becoming adapted to the heat and humidity of the tropics, it will be for me a trip to Siberia.  When it became apparent that this trip was in the offing, I went to my closet to discover two things:  (1) I only have one pair of long pants, and (2) no jacket.  All my winter clothes were left in a storage unit in Colorado, for obvious reasons.  So I will fly from Honolulu to Denver, spending a day pulling thick, heavy attire out of storage, along with a couple more pairs of long pants, and then fly to KC for the game.  Since there is no point in taking winter clothes back to Hawai'i, I will have to stop in Denver again on the way back to put them back into their assigned containers before returning to Honolulu.  The good news is that I'll have a day to spend with two of our beloved grandkids going in both directions, which by itself makes the trip worthwhile.

I had assumed that we would not return to the mainland for at least two more years, as this work contract wound down.  So I was in a way unprepared for this brief trip back into the deep freeze.  But this is one of those singular moments in one's lifetime when the opportunity presents itself to go somewhere and experience something fantastic and other-worldly.  If I looked closely enough, this might actually be a line item somewhere on my extensive bucket list.  The pilgrimage to that Midwestern cathedral of football is one that for a Chief's fan, must be made, even at the risk of pneumonia and hypothermia.  

Intellectually, I know I fly out late Thursday on the red-eye.  I also know that on Sunday, I will be in Arrowhead for what possibly may be the most exciting three hours of my life.  But I also know that this sense of unreality won't harden into UHD-quality reality until I am standing there with 70,000 of my closest friends in the loudest stadium in the world watching our team as they strive to reach the pinnacle of their profession.  

That moment when reality asserts itself, I already know will be the greatest moment ever.

And I'll be sharing it with my son. 

Update:  The forecast has changed, and not for the better.  Game time temp:  6.  Degrees.  Farenheit.

I'm going to die.


Monday, December 31, 2018

New Year's, and the Way Forward

Photo © Ralph F. Couey

Copyright © 2018
By Ralph F. Couey

"The only reason we do New Year's resolutions
is so we don't have to think about change
for the rest of the year."
--Ralph F. Couey

In a few hours, the terminator marking midnight will begin to sweep across the planet and as that imaginary line passes, humans will throw wild celebrations, marked by fireworks, alcohol, and behavior that likely will be regretted by tomorrow morning.

Still, there is an air of optimism as the clocks tick forward from yesterday into tomorrow.  2018, for all its triumphs and tragedies, for all the dreams realized and those crushed will pass into history.  In it's wake, 2019 will arrive with all the attractive fascination of a shiny new toy.  We will celebrate tonight, obscuring the very real idea that nothing much will have changed.

One of the most common questions asked of people on their birthday is, "Well, how does it feel to be ______ (insert the appropriate age)?"  The question is a bit inane because that kind of change doesn't show up overnight, unless of course the person is turning the age where alcohol consumption is now legal.  The same is true of New Year's.  The world will not have magically transformed itself between tonight and tomorrow morning.  People will still love those they currently love, and hate those they already hate.  The tribal conflict that our national political environment has become will not suddenly vanish.  Politicians of both parties will continue to lie and their constituents will continue to believe those lies, and the cycle of hate and intolerance will continue.

If, during 2018, we had a problem with abuse of alcohol, food, drugs, gambling, anger, laziness, or an utter incapacity to care much about anything important, then 2019 will be no different.  Oh, we may make promises to ourselves, but human behaviorists all agree that our commitment to those  vows will be gone by mid-January.  And life will go on, just like last year.

If we were to honestly examine these things closely, we might begin to understand that despite our protestations to the contrary, we rather like the old us, because we're comfortable living in that little box.  We complain -- a lot -- but complaining is something of a recreation these days.  We don't really want to be fixed; we just want to be able to continue chipping our gums.  We blame others, people, institutions, environments, because if our problems are the fault of someone else, then we are relieved of the responsibility to do anything about them.  We can't change other people, so we rest easily in the delusion that there's no reason to change ourselves.

If we were really serious about fixing our lives, we wouldn't wait for the convenient chronological waypoint of January 1st to do so.  We could make those major alterations on August 1st, or June 19th, or September 23rd.  We don't need a date; we only need to be irretrievably fed up. And willing to hold ourselves responsible for the process.  

I think one reason why we fail at these kinds of things is that we expect too much too fast.  Any change, physical, emotional, or circumstantial, can only be done one step at a time.  Also, we need to be always aware that there will be times when we suffer setbacks, or outright failures, but not allow those moments to defeat the larger purpose.  Remaining true to the...well, cause...is the real victory.  

Chrissie Evert-Lloyd, one of the most dominating women's tennis players in history was in a match once with her back to the wall.  She was down two sets in a five set match, sitting at 0-5 in the third set, and literally on what could have been the last possible point of the match.  Defeat was imminent, but instead of surrendering, she stood her ground and fought all the way back, eventually winning the match.  People who win don't give up on themselves, even when the world has given up on them.  Yes, it will take an enormous amount of effort, and living with a nearly-invisible margin for error, but it can happen.  Humans are wired this way from birth.  We only need to search; dig down deep for that primal part of us which stubbornly insists that surrender is not an option.

Set realistically attainable goals.  If you want to lose 50 pounds, then concentrate on the reduction in diet and increase in activity to achieve one or two pounds per week.  Know that some weeks you won't lose an ounce, and may in fact put weight back on.  But a task that is planned to last 12 months won't get done any sooner than that.  You may find other weeks where you'll lose not one or two pounds, but four or five.  Learn to live with the inconsistency and the patience of the long view.

Almost any other change can be approached in the same way, one step at a time, one day at a time, one week at a time.  But they all carry the same requirement:  Don't give up.

Also, expect that you may be the only person who knows that something positive is going on.  We rely too much on the affirmation of others, who after all are deeply entwined in their own problems.  Cheer yourself, applaud yourself, boost yourself.  There is a lot of strength deep inside that we never know exists until we actually go looking for it.  And at the end of our quest, next December 31st, we can look back and revel in what we actually accomplished instead of once again berating ourselves for failures.

 If you have a trusted friend who can help hold you accountable, then quietly share your promise, and commit to helping them as well. But don't judge; encourage.  And be there for each other during those times when frustration and temptation put it all at risk.  Friends are there to help us become better people, not encourage our self-destruction.

Resolutions are necessarily unique to the individual, as are our perceived problems. But there is one  resolution that can find common ground.  That resolution was best expressed in the scriptures as "The Great Commandment."  Love one another.  Yeah, that's a toughie.  But we can do it.

It's okay to disagree on issues, but it's not okay to use those disagreements as a cudgel against others.  How we look at the world, and the opinions we hold is a natural consequence of the journey we have taken through life.  That journey is our own and not shared with anybody else, so it's actually a bit irrational to expect, or demand, everyone else to agree with us on every issue.  Respect each other's journey, and the experience they've had along the way.  And remember that as much  as we would like to think we are, we are seldom always right.

2019 is nigh, and coming to a world that desperately needs change, both small and large.  It is up to us, and us alone, to make our world a better place.  As Abraham Lincoln once said, "We, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility."

Let's spend the new year being kinder, more loving and respectful.  Let's not take on the whole world, just our small corner of it.  We all have a lot of corners, and they add up.

Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Christmas: Living the Meaning of the Season


“Christmas is the spirit of giving without a thought of getting. 
It is happiness because we see joy in people. ” – Thomas S. Monson

The anticipation begins building before Hallowe'en, as people begin to think about their gift list and how to plan the multitude of events that inevitably follow.  Thanksgiving becomes, in a sense, a warm-up for that big day in December.  Trips are planned, reservations are made, and time-off scheduled, time carved out so families can gather.  This is important because as life ages us and our children grow old...er...those times when we can all gather under the same roof become rare; treasured like a chestful of precious gems.

There is a darker side to this time, characterized by greed, self-absorption, and a deep sense of a quid pro quo entitlement where the gift you give is clearly defined by the gift you received last year.  One only has to watch the chaos at the big box stores on Black Friday to see those elements at play.  

But for most of us, at least I hope for most, Christmas is honored in the way and for the purpose for which it was conceived.  Some 2,000 years ago, give or take, a family left their home in a small, inconsequential village in Judea and traveled to the governmental and administrative hub for their province, the bustling city of Bethlehem.  They were required to make this journey because the government required an annual census of the population.  Because of the enormous influx of people, all the inns were full to capacity.  In sympathy for Mary's advanced pregnancy, the wife of one of the innkeeper's allowed them to lodge in one of the caves used for livestock. They weren't homeless.  There simply was no other sleeping space available.  If we stopped in a town while on vacation only to find that every hotel was full, I don't think we'd call ourselves homeless, even if the situation warranted spending the night in the car.

A few hours later as a bright star shown overhead, a baby entered the world, much as billions of other babies have throughout human history.  But this baby was different.  Jesus, as his mother named him, was not truly the son of Joseph and Mary, but rather the only begotten son of God.  Under humble and miraculous circumstances, Jesus began his journey on the complex and difficult path that would lead ultimately to his crucifixion.

As the scriptures note, God gave his son life so that he could perish in sacrifice for the sins of humanity.  Of course, Jesus arose three days later proving that death is not the end we think it is.

But that gift is really what Christmas is about.  God didn't expect a flood of thank you notes, nor did he expect or demand presents from us.  God's gift, and Jesus' sacrifice was given out of love and nothing more.

This celebration and the gift-giving that occasions it is supposed to be our way of following that example.  To give without thought of payback; to love without recompense; to live of life of service and giving to others defines the ideal of the season.  And to do so without expecting anything in return -- even a thank you -- is the example we should follow.

The other facet is that this same spirit of selfless giving is not limited to the month of December.  It is just as relevant in May, July, September or any other month.  That elusive thing we call "the spirit of Christmas" which inhabits our hearts around this time of year should be present every day of our lives.  We should always be willing to give of ourselves and our resources freely, even anonymously to those in need.  The needs of others always first; our needs always last.

That's the ideal, anyway.  But it's easy to see that in this growing secular world, Christmas, or "The Holidays" if one chooses to be PC, has become more about accumulation.  And not of snow.

We have the choice.  We can take our eyes off the small box of our personal concerns and see the needs of others.  We can elect to put others before ourselves.  We can choose to celebrate Christmas all year long, letting our lives reflect that divine selflessness.  Instead of looking for those things which divide us, and letting our anger fly at those who have different opinions, we can look only for what we share between us.  We can celebrate those common things that bond us as part of the larger human family and live together in peace.

It is our choice.  God gave us the ability and freedom of agency, trusting that we would do the right thing.

For me, it took a child from the Peanuts series to express the true meaning of Christmas:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, 
keeping watch over their flock by night.
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, 
and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: 
and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: 
for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, 
which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David 
a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.
And this shall be a sign unto you; 
Ye shall find the babe 
wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
And suddenly there was with the angel 
a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
"Glory to God in the highest, 
and on earth peace, good will toward men.

That's what Christmas is all about.  Living and loving the gift given to us, and passing that same gift of love to others.  And choosing to live that same spirit always.

This year, what choice will we make?

Friday, December 07, 2018

December 7th

At the beginning of the attack.  If you look closely, 
you can see, in the water, torpedo tracks and concussion rings.
--U.S. National Archives

"For me, the most remarkable aspect of that terrible day
was how quickly those young men cycled from the boredom of peacetime
to heroism in the face of the most violent, most frightening day of their lives. 
Japanese pilots repeatedly marveled at how quickly the Americans fought back."
--Ralph F. Couey
Frmr Chief Petty Officer
United States Navy

Copyright © 2018
By Ralph F. Couey

If you go there today, you will be impressed by the quiet beauty of the place.  The bright sunlight, the dancing waters, the fresh breeze all combine to provide a sense of peace and serenity.  Looking over towards Bravo Piers, I can see the gray shapes of modern warships apparently sitting quietly pierside, although I know better.  Aboard those ships, the crews are busily engaged in the myriad of tasks and projects necessary to the operation, preservation, and preparation of a Navy ship.  It is always a busy day, often a long one.  Concentrating on the work, they can forget the larger purpose of exactly why they wear the uniform

Seventy-seven years ago, there was another day like this one.  It was a Sunday, which meant that those sailors who didn't have the duty were sleeping in or just rousing themselves, planning how to spend their day in more delightful pursuits than chipping paint.  The off-going duty section was busily engaged in the routine morning work of preparing to turn the ship over to the oncoming duty section, who had just finished breakfast and were gathering at muster stations.  On all ships, the watchstanders were preparing to execute the daily flag-raising ceremony we all knew as "morning colors."  On the Battleships, a full band was mustered on the fantail, ready for a rousing rendition of the National Anthem.  Nowhere could be found any hint or suspicion that anything but a peaceful Sunday lay ahead.

Around 7:55 a.m., (0755, in Naval parlance), planes began overflying the moored ships.  Some began strafing runs and to everyone's shock, a bomb was dropped on Ford Island.  Even at that point, observers were convinced that this was a very realistic drill laid on by the Navy or the Army.  At some point, an invisible switch was thrown in their hearts and minds, and they realized with shock what was upon them.

War.

Commander Logan Ramsey of Patrol Wing 2 ordered his radiomen to immediately send out the uncoded message that shook America to its very core:  

"AIR RAID, PEARL HARBOR.  THIS IS NO DRILL."

The first 20 minutes of the attack were, in many ways the most destructive phase.  In that short space of time, three battleships were torpedoed and USS ARIZONA had been blown in half.  Across the island, action was breaking out at air bases at Kaneohe, Barbers Point, Hickam, Wheeler, and Ford Island.  In a shockingly short period of time, the modern aircraft whose job it was to defend O'ahu lay for the most part in piles of burning junk.  Hundreds were already dead or soon would be.  USS OKLAHOMA had rolled over, trapping hundreds below decks.  

It would be perfectly understandable if we read about those servicemen diving for cover and trying to hide.  But that is not what happened.  These young men,  most of them in their late teens and early twenties, ran to their battle stations.  Ammunition stored in locked boxes were hacked into and bullets distributed to the waiting guns.  Japanese pilots were amazed at how quickly the black bursts of anti-aircraft fire began to fill the skies.  One noted that if the reverse had occurred, he doubted that Japanese sailors would have responded as quickly.

But that heroism went beyond grabbing guns.  On every stricken ship, there were acts of incredibly selfless bravery and valor.  Aboard the USS CALIFORNIA, Petty Officer First Class Robert Scott manned his station in the air compressor compartment.  Compressed air is vital to the safe operation of Navy guns because after every shot, hot air and ash is blown out of the barrels.  If this were not done, the serving crews would be incinerated by opening the breech to load the next round.  After multiple torpedo hits to his beloved battleship, water began pouring into the compartment.  Coolly, he sent the men for whom he was responsible out of the compartment, saying, "This is my station and I will stay and give them air as long as the guns are going."  Petty Officer Scott, 26 years old, paid the ultimate price.

Ensign Francis Flattery as his ship, the OKLAHOMA began to roll over, remained in a gun turret holding a battle lantern so his men could escape.  Ensign Flattery died at his post.  SN James R. Ward did the same for his shipmates in another turret. He also died at his post.

Chief Petty Officer Edwin J. Hill of the NEVADA, dove into the water and swam to the mooring quay, removed the lines holding the ship and then swam back.  Later, supervising an anchoring crew on the foc'sle he was killed when the Japanese dropped a cluster of bombs trying to prevent the battleship from leaving port.

Also aboard the CALIFORNIA, Lt. Jackson Pharris and Chief Petty Officer Thomas J. Reeves organized parties of men to pass ammunition topside to the guns still firing.  Both were overcome by smoke and fumes and after ordering their men out of those spaces, succumbed.

These were all relatively young men.  Chief Reeves was the oldest, but despite their youth and utter lack of combat experience, they responded like veterans and set the standard for courage and devotion to duty that guides Navy sailors to this day.

I go to Pearl Harbor quite often, sometimes to the memorial, but mostly viewing it from the walking trail that circles most of the harbor.  At some point on my route, I will stop and look towards those empty quays marked with the names of those ships, and wonder if I had been in that same situation, would I have been so brave.

One of the oft-repeated quotes that populates this blog is one by author William Gibson:  "Time moves in one direction, memory in the other."  It is a reminder that as the passage of time puts distance between us and the past, our remembrances will lose their immediacy and emotion.  Also, knowing that for younger people who did not live through such events, it will never mean as much to them as it does to the rest of us.  Memories of that terrible day we remember as 9/11 are also fading, and those children who were born in 2001 are now about to graduate high school.  For them and those born after, that day will be viewed through the cold, dispassionate accounts of history.

There are only three survivors from the USS ARIZONA left, and perhaps only a few hundred survivors of the attack remain alive.  As we lose them, we lose their memories, that vital personal perspective that gives life and meaning to the historical record.  Here in Hawai'i, the attack is commemorated every year on December 7th.  Almost nowhere else is the anniversary remembered.

Remembering Pearl Harbor is not about dragging race-based hate into the present.  People don't start wars.  Governments do, and the Army generals who were in de facto control of the Japanese government at that time bore full responsibility for the chain of destruction which they initiated.  The Japanese people, told only what their government wanted them to know, had no way of knowing that any other truth existed.  It is a cold reminder of how important it is for us as citizens of a representative republic to hold our leaders, of both political parties, responsible for the truth. Without the zealous oversight of the citizenry, politicians will lie, and will do so with ease and without conscience.  

Americans are taught from birth to be independent and self-directed.  Many are raised by their parents under the dictum than nothing will happen for you until you MAKE it happen for you.  this was far more true for that generation that grew up during the depression and found themselves suddenly in a world war which none of them had asked for or anticipated.  Nonetheless, those who were there at Pearl Harbor on that day, as well as those who were in the Philippines, Guam, Wake, and the other places that came under the Japanese guns responded with courage, in accordance with their training.  There were acts of American heroism all across the Pacific in those dark days of 1941. and there would many more such acts in the following three years and nine months.  There have also been many similar acts of valor in the wars we have fought since.  It is part of that illusive thing we call the American Character.  We will fight and die for each other, for our country, and for other people's freedom.  It's how we roll.

But on a peaceful sunlit morning in 2018, I remember; I honor; I pay tribute to those who paid that price.  

And I hope that the way I have led my life has been worthy of their sacrifice.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Post #700

Copyright Charles Schulz

"Every secret of a writer's soul,
every experience of his life, 
every quality of his mind
is written large in his works."
Virginia Woolf

Copyright © 2018
By Ralph F. Couey
Written Content Only

Twelve years ago, I started on a journey, not knowing exactly where it would take me.  I had been doing some writing here and there, and was starting to get some pieces published in the local paper.  On the advice of a friend, I decided to open one of those new-fangled weblogs, or blogs for short.  My first post was a commentary about a motorcycle accident involving Steelers quarterback Ben Rothlesberger, which ended up in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  I discovered that writing was the creative outlet I had been searching for, a way to unload the thoughts that had been to that point uselessly banging around inside my head.  It was also a path to a personal kind of peace, a zone where thoughts were converted to words and displayed for all to see.  

I was a newspaper columnist for awhile, weekly gigs in two small-town newspapers in Pennsylvania.  But some of my essays were picked up by the Trib Group and ended up on the webpages of newspapers across the country.  Heady stuff, that.

I stayed away from politics for two reasons.  First off, we're already deeply divided and I didn't want to contribute to the widening of that fissure.  Secondly, there are a lot of unhinged people out there who react forcefully and sometimes violently to words and ideas that disagree with their particular view of the world.  While I enjoy meeting people, those were people I decided I was better off not knowing.    Beyond that, I've written about a broad range of subjects covering the plethora of the human experience.  I've written about events that happen deep beneath our feet and far beyond the stars. I've tried to write things that everyone would enjoy reading and walk away with a smile. 

Three years ago, I decided to tackle my Great American Novel.  It took awhile, but I managed to assemble a collection of short stories about people inhabiting a small town in rural south Missouri.  After editing, I self-published the book on Amazon.  It was a triumphal experience to hold a hard copy in my hands, and an emotional one.  It was at the same time the achievement of a goal and the realization of a larger dream.  

But beyond such big picture considerations is just the sheer joy I get from the process of turning thoughts and feelings into words, and the challenge of finding the right way to describe the often indescribable emotions I feel.  There is also the challenge of finding the right combination of words and sentences and connecting them as a theme running through an entire essay.  And nothing matches the joyful satisfaction in that rare moment when I know I've gotten it just right.

I'm proud of the 700 essays on this blog because they are all deeply personal.  If someone wanted to profile my personality they would only have to wade through the whole content.  All I am, all I've ever thought and felt, and most of what I know is contained here.  If you are a repeat visitor, thank you for sticking around.  I appreciate you more than you'll ever know.  If you are a new visitor, I hope you dig around, read a few, and leave me a note about what you thought.

I will continue to do this as long as I am capable, and as time rolls onward and the future unwinds, we will all discover the journey upon which we have been.

My name is Ralph Couey, and I am a writer.

Monday, December 03, 2018

Acting Stupid and Paying the Price

Fired.
Image Copyright © 2017
Associated Press

Copyright © 2018
By Ralph F. Couey
Written content only

For almost two seasons, Kareem Hunt was a football star.  He had a memorable debut against the Patriots in a prime time game, replacing an injured Spencer Ware who now replaces him.  He fumbled his first NFL carry and would never fumble again.  That night, he gashed Bill Belichick's defense for 248 all-purpose yards and would go on to finish the year as the NFL's rushing champ.

Hunt was not just a runner.  He also caught passes -- a lot of passes -- and made spectacular yards afterwards.  He was the third in a string of great Chief's running backs after Priest Holmes and Jamaal Charles.  It would appear that Ware, the strongest back out of training camp had been, in the sports vernacular, Pipped.  Hunt rapidly became a fan favorite.  His yards were down a bit this season, but only because he was not the whole offense, but part of a multi-headed hydra of nightmare proportions that the Chief's offense has become.  But he still made incredible plays, dodging, weaving, hurdling, and catching long passes streaking out of the backfield.  It would have been easy to make the assertion that this was the beginning of a long Hall of Fame career.  He was that good.

But suddenly, shockingly, it all ended.  

This week, the tabloid media group TMZ released a video from a security camera in a Cleveland hotel showing an apparently unhinged Hunt assaulting a young woman in the hallway in February.  The hotel refused to release a copy of the incriminating footage to either the Chiefs or the NFL, but apparently was willing to "leak" (read: money changed hands) to TMZ.  The local police investigated but did not charge anyone, although the report lists both men and the woman as "suspects."  The Chiefs did their own investigation and apparently believed what Hunt told them, being confirmed in that belief since no charges had been filed against the running back.  Fast forward ten months, and the situation changed completely.  It isn't clear what Hunt told the Chiefs, or what police told them, but whatever it was, it was wrong.  In Hunt's case, he lied.

Had Kareem Hunt been straight from the beginning about the events that early morning, he might have survived this with a suspension and hefty fine.  But his lies caught up to him.  In the space of less than eight hours, a bright career ended with all the finality of a slamming sarcophagus lid.  We've seen this before, rising and established stars in many different fields destroyed by acts of incredible stupidity.  Part of the cost of fame is that such a person lives under a glass bubble.  Every act, word, even thought become instant fodder for the public microscope, free to be judged by countless millions, most of whom are never in possession of all the facts.  Famous people will either survive that crucible, or fall from grace, vanishing from memory.

The Chiefs did the right thing.  Releasing Hunt sent a message to the entire league that no matter how big a star you have become, not matter how apparently irreplaceable you are to the team, you can be kicked to the curb in an instant.

There is an unwritten code covering male behavior, the first two rules of which are "do not ever hit a woman" and "don't lie."  Like it or not, men are judged by their discipline and integrity, and if we fail those critical tests, we abdicate our right to be called a man.  Hunt failed those tests.

The impact on the team hasn't been felt yet, although in today's game against the Raiders, a 4-pronged running attack gashed Oakland's defense for 177 rushing yards, including 55 by QB Mahomes.  But what was missing was "the big play," the big gainer or spectacular touchdown that only Hunt could provide.  But it was enough, even given another near-meltdown by the Chief's defense.  Hunt was a big part of that offense, but was not the only round in the clip.  Spencer Ware was a beast at LSU, and was to be the starter last year.  He showed signs of that today, even though he only rushed for 47 yards, his longest run one of 17 yards.  But everyone concedes that Ware is a quality back who could start for any number of other teams.  Patrick Mahomes is getting better, and Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce (186 receiving yards today), and Sammy Watkins (when finally healthy) still form a cadre of offensive weaponry that will give opposing defenses sleepless nights.  The march towards Atlanta in February should continue unabated.  

I want to be completely and clearly understood here.  Violence against women is despicably inexcusable.  It is a failure of character.  But there are nonetheless behavioral elements to this event that have to be examined and acknowledged.

The female in question, 19-year-old Abigail Ottinger is a minor, and yet managed to get herself and a friend aboard a party bus, where by all accounts she drank.  This raises some interesting questions about the company running the party bus, how two minor children got aboard, and how they got access to alcohol.  Later, Ottinger and her friend, already intoxicated, accompanied two strange men to a hotel room.  If this was a television show or movie, we'd all be yelling at the screen already.  Once inside the room, the two men discovered that the girls were minors and they were asked, then directed to leave.  Once outside the room, instead of going home, Ottinger proceeded to yell and bang on the room door for 30 minutes.  Her friend suggested that they leave.  Ottinger responded by smacking her friend in the face.  At some point, she started in on the racial epithets.

Is there anything in this account that doesn't already suggest looming disaster?

In this culture, in this time, it is understood that when a white person, male or female, unleashes the "N" word on a black person, bad things are going to happen, even when both parties are stone cold sober.  Alcohol enhanced the outrage, and in full view of surveillance cameras, Hunt committed the unforgivable sin.

There are several decision points that could have averted this disaster.  The purveyors of the party bus could have been much tighter with their ID checks.  Hunt and his friend could have realized that nothing good happens after midnight and too much to drink and not invited the girls to their room.  The girls could have mad e the decision that it was dangerous to drink illegally and to excess, and that it was very unwise to accompany two strangers to a hotel room.  When Ottinger commenced her door-banging "N"-word flinging performance, the two men could have just called hotel security to have them removed.

But that's not what happened.  Ms. Ottinger will no doubt be held up as a feminist icon after this despite her complete lack of discretion and intelligence that night.  Her contribution to this disaster will likely be covered up and forgotten over time.  There is some sense that she knew she did something wrong because she has refused all media interview requests, and in fact refused to speak with investigators from the NFL and the Chiefs.  And the officers who responded to the scene declined to make any arrests.  

But in the end, none of that matters.  What does matter is this: Kareem Hunt hit a woman.  Whatever his motivations at the time, that is just wrong, and there's no way to sugar coat that act.  He has been punished in the most painful way possible.  His dream has crashed and burned.  Everything he worked so hard for up to this point has been ripped away.  

And that's the way it should be.

Hunt may at some point return to play.  But it's unlikely that he will ever be cheered like he was in Kansas City for he will forever live under this cloud.  If he never returns to play, I can't see him establishing any kind of meaningful career after this.  No one would ever trust him, or would want his kind of notoriety on their corporate shingle.  His life may in fact be over.

In our solar system, there are trillions of icy comets orbiting far beyond the orbit of Neptune.  Once in a while, one is dislodged and plunges sunward.  For months, it is a glorious thing to see streaking through space streaming a bright tail.  But once it rounds the sun and heads back out, the glory fades and it becomes just another block of ice.  Sometimes, the comet dies a fiery death crashing into the Sun.  Kareem Hunt streaked in like a comet and for 27 games lit up the skies.  But his glory has faded, and he has crashed.  He may never be heard from again.  All because he drank too much and made several really bad decisions.  Abigail Ottinger also drank too much and made several really bad decisions, but she will be forgotten.  Decades from now, when this incident is recalled, she will be remembered not by name, but as the unnamed woman kicked by the NFL star.  The long-term consequences to her will be negligible at best.  Is this fair?  Well, boys and girls, the world doesn't have to fair.

Only round.

I hope Mr. Hunt learns from this.  I hope every young man learns from this and thinks twice about getting drunk around women late at night.  I would like to think that young women will also learn something about not putting themselves in dangerous situations.

As I see it, in this tragedy there were two perpetrators.  There were also two victims.  They just happened to be the same two people.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

My First Official Book Review -- Meh...


Copyright © 2018
by Ralph F. Couey

In the life of an author- budding or otherwise -- there are two gut-wrenching events, the gauntlet through which we must all pass.  The first is that initial meet with an editor, and the inevitable changes that must be wrought.  As painful as that is, I recognize how important that work has to be.  The second event is the first review by a third party.  A book review is, at best, highly subjective and can be heavily influenced by the mood of the reviewer on the day your book lands on their desk.  You can get a bad review for no better reason than the barista screwed up their latte order that morning.  But there are valuable things to be learned, the most important being not everyone is going to love your book and how to deal with that associated angst.

Last April I self-published my first novel on Amazon, Tales of Barely, Missouri, a collection of short stories about a fictional town in south Missouri.  In the time since publication, some 60 copies have been sold -- both hard copy and Kindle versions.  The comments left by the purchasers have been wonderful.  They all "got" the book, which is to say they understood the mood, setting, and characters.  I am deeply grateful for their feedback.  So, buoyed by those comments, I entered the book in a book competition hosted by Writer's Digest.  

I'll save you the suspense.  I didn't win.  Or place.  Or show, for that matter. 

But this week I received an email from them with a short review by someone with the nom de guerre  "Judge #49."  I have been waiting on tenterhooks for this email, and that generated a certain amount of angst and fearful anticipation.

The review opens with numerical grading of some of the story elements.  On a scale of one to five, five being outstanding, these were my grades:

Structure, Organization, and Pacing: 4
Spelling, Punctuation, and Grammar: 3
Production Quality and Cover Design: 3
Plot and Story Appeal: 4
Character Appeal and Development: 2
Voice and Writing Style: 3 

I guess I shouldn't be too disappointed, since this was my first book.  But a book is very much the child of that author, and you always want your kid to succeed.  It was good that the two highest scores were for "Structure, Organization, and Pacing," and "Plot and Story Appeal."  I interpreted that to mean that they were good stories that flowed well and were appealing to read, which is really the heart and soul of any writing effort.  I want my readers to keep reading from cover to cover, and those scores indicate that there was some significant fertility present.  The other factors were covered in the review itself, which I present here:

"In Tales of Barely, Missouri, a mainstream / literary novel by Ralph F Couey, we are presented with a window onto the broken down rural south – with all of the social and economic challenges that one might expect. With all that, the book never devolves into a sentimental or overly drawn portrait. The struggle and the characters, especially Virgil, feel real and earned and not just simply caricatures. 

The title for the novel seems to this reader to be clear and folksy, providing the reader with a suggestive entry point to the work that establishes a sense of tone and provides firm footing. The dialogue here is sometimes problematic and clunky, sounding a little off in a way that causes the reader to stumble and question the characterizations. It’s hard to nail dialogue, especially when juggling characters, but it’s crucial to maintain a sense of realism and, to my ear, this element often seemed a little forced and wooden.

Apart from what’s inside the quotation marks, there is not enough attention being paid to creating tension and torque through the tags – those descriptors of externals and internal action that help readers know what’s going on in and around the dialogue, how it’s being delivered and how to take it.

The overall design of the book is professional. It features an interior layout that is crisp and clean with text design on each page that is readable though presented in a digital seeming font that is hard on the eyes. It may seem minor, but getting the interior in order is an important step in getting the reader hooked! Also, the cover image for the book is lush and evocative though the font treatment here, again, makes for difficult reading.

I spotted some minor spelling, punctuation and grammar problems here and there and even though these can seem minor, they can work to really destroy a reader’s confidence in the story they are reading, throwing them out of the flow of the narrative. A more thorough proofreading is warranted."

Well, not half bad, considering. After all, it could have started out, "This was the worst thing I've ever read..." and gone downhill from there. It would have been nice to get specifics on a few things, like the "clunky and problematic" dialogue that seemed "a little forced and wooden." I guess I need someone who will sit down and go over specifics with me. I'm currently writing the sequel "More Tales of Barely, Missouri" and it would have been great to get the benefit of those specifics. But to be honest, I spent some twenty years of my life writing intelligence reports for the government, and I suppose some of that stodgy style still permeates my creative efforts.

I'm a bit mystified by the third paragraph. I'm ashamed to admit I don't know what "creating torsion and tension through the tags" means. I'm guessing that the characters needed to be fleshed out some more, and more detail needed to be added about the action taking place during the dialogue. At least, I hope that's what it means.

I shared this with my copy editor, who was "mortified, humiliated and boggled" by that last statement in the review. But I thought at the time -- and I still do -- that she did a bang-up job not only correcting grammar, punctuation, and continuity issues, but also keeping me out of possible trouble with a certain Kansas City mafiosi.

So, the first review is on the books. I had hoped for more, but I think I should be very happy with what was said. Like I said, this is my first book, and it is only natural to assume that experience will make me a better writer.

There are other challenges ahead.  I need about 15 people to recommend the book to Amazon, which means that they will pick it up for wider distribution and promotion, and hopefully, get me some additional critical feedback.  And I need to learn more about the Kindle Direct Publishing software so I can fix formatting issues for which no clear advice exists on that website.  I want to finish the sequel, and make significant progress on the other three books waiting in the production queue.  

I do have another "book" out there.  I wrote a sequel to an Andre Norton Sci-Fi novel, which the good folks who manage the late author's website have hosted it there, the first time they have ever done such a thing.  This is clearly a high honor for which I am humbly appreciative.  This story, "Star Man's Saga," did not go through an editing process, but still came out pretty nicely, and the feedback from the website's readers has been very positive.  The story can be accessed under the header "My Published Books" on the right side of this blog page.  If you haven't read the original, it may not make sense to you, but I tried to include enough flashback information that a new reader would understand the context in which the story is presented.

When I retired from FBI nearly two years ago (has it been that long???) one of my goals was to finish and publish that first novel.  Now that I know what's possible, and what I can be capable of, I am pushing forward on the other projects as time allows.  I'd like to feel a bit of pride for what I've accomplished, but I keep that firmly in control through regular visits to Barnes & Noble, where I see the accomplishments of thousands of other authors who actually made it to "real" publication and a space on the shelf of a brick-and-mortar bookstore.  I don't even begin to think that a Pulitzer is in my future.  I'm content to write stories that resonate with those who read them. 

After all, sixty readers can't be wrong, can they?

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Where to Go, What to Do

Blast and fallout map, 150kt weapon.
(Hawai'i Emergency Management Agency)

Copyright © 2018
By Ralph F. Couey

On January 13th of this year, the people of Hawai'i were subjected to 47 minutes of terror, thanks to an erroneous posting of an EAS (Emergency Alert System) text message announcing that ballistic missiles were on their way.  What ensued were numerous acts of  mindless panic as people raced around preparing for the end.  As I noted in that post, people panicked because they didn't know where to go or what to do.  The state government worked hard to inform residents and visitors on actions to be taken during a tsunami or hurricane warning.  But nobody had undertaken the task of teaching folks where to go and what to do in case of a pending nuclear attack.  Those very politicians who were elbowing each other aside in order to position themselves in front of television cameras had utterly failed to teach their constituents how to plan and what to do to protect themselves.

Some may argue that it isn't the responsibility of politicians to do this kind of thing.  I beg to differ.  I grew up during the worst years of the Cold War.  My parents and I had numerous conversations about that nebulous "what might happen if" so even at the tender age of seven years old, I knew what I needed to do if those sirens began to sound.  I clearly remember our U.S. Congressman coming to my elementary school at least three times to tell us that inside our school was the best and safest place  to be, and if the alert happened, we needed to stay there because our parents knew we would be safe.   I also knew, thanks to comprehensive television and film programs which were shown regularly on local stations and at school what I was to do if I was at home, or even out riding my bicycle.  Because I had been trained and informed, I was never afraid of the "what if" or panicked when one day an alert was mistakenly sent out.  

We were tougher kids back then.  Our parents didn't shield us from knowledge of the dangers, sensing that we would be better able to function if we knew what to do.  Today, the parents of what is becoming known as the "Snowflake Generation" have so insulated their kids from the real world that they can't even listen to a differing opinion, let alone a pending disaster, without plunging deep into PTSD.

So, you ask, why am I writing about this again some ten months later?  Earlier this week, the North Korean government announced the testing of "an ultra-modern tactical weapon."  While such a weapon poses no threat to anyone outside of a battlefield, Hawai'i is still in range of North Korean missiles.  This is what sparked the angst last January.  

Back in Hawai'i to live now, I was interested to observe that this dire pronouncement caused not even a ripple in the local news pond.  A cynic might point out that for the local Democrat-dominated political gentry, the only real enemy is one D. Trump, Esq, the current occupant of that stately residence on Pennsylvania Avenue.  So consumed with their hate, anger, and vitriol towards Trump and his party, it appears that North Korea seems to have fallen off their radar.  Consequently, the people of this, the 50th State are no better informed or educated now than they were 10 months ago.  Having failed them once, their government is positioned to fail them again.

Politicians, generally speaking, do not solve problems.  If they solve a problem, then they lose the issue upon which to run a campaign.  One gets far more PR mileage harping about an issue than one gets kudos for fixing the problem driving the issue.  Also, if the issue isn't on the radar of the local media community, it generally isn't being acted on politically.  The dangers surrounding a possible nuclear attack would seem to me to be higher on the local priority list given what almost happened last January.  

My biggest beef with that whole situation was that during any other kind of possible danger, tsunami, hurricane, etc., people here know what to do.  But there is still now no active education ongoing about how to prepare and what to do during a nuclear attack alert.  In January, there were reports of people speeding down city streets at triple-digit speeds, ignoring traffic signals and laws.  Others were lowering their children into storm drains.  Drivers stopped their cars on one of the busiest freeways on O'ahu, getting out of their cars and running into tunnels.  No one was killed or even injured during these activities, for which I am thankful to kind and beneficent providence.  That may not happen next time.

The situation can be made much safer simply by informing the public.  Parents, if your keikis are in school, leave them there.  Nearly all school buildings are much better shelter than the single wall structure that is your residence.  You need to look around and decide that maybe you're much safer where you are than putting yourself and others at mortal risk by speeding to anyplace else.  Storm drains may be attractive, but know that they can fill up rapidly if it should start to rain, putting your kids at risk of drowning.  Stopping on a freeway and taking to foot is one of the fastest and most sure ways to cause your exit from this life.  Do you have a month of food and water in your pantry?  Encased in containers that will not become radioactive?  Are you prepared to be utterly on your own for at least that long of a time?

Educating people is what government does best.  By telling people ahead of time how to prepare and behave more lives can be saved, not just during a real attack, but during a false alarm.  It remains to be seen if Hawai'i leaders can tear themselves away from the destruction of Donald Trump and focus on making plans to save the lives of their constituents.  It is time for them to be leaders.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Loving Mahomes, But Still Being a Chief's Fan

The cannon is loaded.
© 2018 Chiefs.com


Copyright © 2018
by Ralph F. Couey

Being a fan of the Kansas City Chiefs means you by necessity wear a thick callous around your heart.  In 1967 and again in 1970, they appeared in two Super Bowls (although technically, the first one was just called the AFL-NFL Championship), winning one.  The years since have been a long journey punctuated by some of the worst football ever interspersed with moments of regular season glee followed by truly epic playoff collapses.  Sad events like blowing a 13-point lead in the fourth quarter against the Dolphins in 1991, an injury-ridden loss to the Pats in 2016, a loss to the Steelers greatly assisted by several very questionable penalty calls, the 2003 "no punt game" against the Manning-led Colts, when the defense failed to generate one single stop.  Blowing an 18-point lead against the Titans, blowing another 28-point lead against the the Luck-led Colts, and the agonizing 3-point loss against the Colts when the Chief's "Kicker who shall never be named" missed three easy field goals, two in the fourth quarter.

Among those gut-punching losses are other games that should have been won, usually in the first round of the playoffs.  

It is a long history of utter heartbreak, and perhaps even emotional abuse.  This year, however, there is a refreshing breeze wafting through the Chief's Kingdom generated by the other-worldly talent of Patrick Mahomes.  What was hope is gradually evolving into confidence that this team could go all the way to the Big Dance, even taking into account the massive rock of salt levied by the playoff history of this franchise.

I won't bury you with numbers and tales of Mahomes' prowess; there are plenty of eye-bulging websites which will accommodate even the most OCD'd stat freak.  What is different now is the feeling -- the growing sense that this may not just be THE year, but the first of several championship seasons to come.  This is rarefied air for Chiefs fans.  By week ten, we are generally beginning to prepare ourselves for the annual post-season collapse.  And while there remains a persistent whisper in our ears that assuredly states ,"This is the Chiefs; they'll find a way to blow it," that sibilant utterance is becoming ever harder to detect amidst the roar of jubilation.  

In the ten games thus far, we have seen plays that could only have been created by CGI, throws that defy belief and human anatomy.  But we've also seen consecutive three-and-outs, and an inability to get late first downs to put games away.  We've seen a defense that allows 400 to 500 yards of offense each game, although they have gotten better as late.  In the glaring light of the spectacular, these are the things that create that doubt, that hint of disquiet, things that could spell all-too-familiar doom in the post season.

I had a friend once tell me that Chiefs fans reminded him of the Pooh character Eeyore.  No matter how bright the silver lining, all we could see was the black cloud.  There's some truth to that statement.  But I'd like to think we've earned that cynicism, or rather that past events have thrust it upon us.  No matter how brightly the Chiefs shine now, there's a part of us that grimly awaits the darkness.

As I mentioned earlier, the good news in all of this is that this is only the first year of the Mahomes era.  Even if they fall short this year, next year promises to be even better, and the years after.  The defense is an entirely different unit with Eric Berry on the field, and it is assumed that at some point his heel will permit him to play.  Also, the draft will bring in young talent, shoring up a weak defense.  This season is the first stage of ascent for a team that could dominate over the next two decades in the same way the Patriots have over the last two decades.  But for any of this to have validation, a Super Bowl must be achieved, and must be won.  After so many years of close calls and near misses, nothing else will suffice.

There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, of a young man who stole a very expensive high-performance car and took it on a high-speed run.  In his post-arrest interview, he readily admitted stealing the car.  Said he, "I knew I'd be caught, I knew I'd be arrested and convicted.  But I was determined to enjoy the car and the ride for as long as I could."  This tale may come as close as possible to describing our raging passions right now.  We're riding a race car at blinding speed, and even if it ends in a blazing crash, we will at least have had the ride.  Hope for the best, prepare for the worst, that's us.  But even the most stubbornly cynical Chief's fan will admit that maybe -- just maybe -- this IS the year.

And maybe this time around, January won't be so dark.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Looking Outward and Learning

The Summer Triangle
By Tomruen at en.wikipedia - Own workTransferred from en.wikipedia, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11126314

Copyright © 2018
By Ralph F. Couey
Except cited references and images

Cheryl and I have started to spend an evening here and there at Ala Moana Beach Park as a way of decompressing from the pressures of our daily responsibilities.  It's a nice place from which to watch the sunset, as our Facebook friends have noted recently.  Usually by that time, the tourists have largely cleared out, so we end up with a relatively empty stretch of sand.  One of the delights is an unobstructed view of the sky as it darkens, and the appearance of stars, one by one as Earth's great beacon moves below the horizon.

I have been sitting in the back yard doing this for a few weeks and while it is peaceful and relatively cool, I don't get a huge sky view because of houses and trees.  Also, recently I acquired a free app on my phone called, appropriately enough, Skyview.  It's easy to use.  Activate it, point the phone at a particular star, and the app identifies it for you.  Granted, it's a bit cumbersome, but still, it is a great educational tool for those taking their first tours of the sky.

So, this week I learned about the asterism called "The Summer Triangle."  It consists of three of the brightest stars in the sky, Deneb, Altair, and Vega, the brightest, or Alpha stars of their respective constellations.  (An asterism, by the way, is a stationary pattern of stars in the sky smaller than a constellation.)  Never satisfied with simple answers, I undertook the task of educating myself about these bright points of light.

This grouping has been recognized by humans for at least 2,600 years.  Because the nature of those stars provides a method by which humans can find their place on this planet, they have also been known as the "Navigator's Triangle."

Deneb is the brightest star in the constellation Cygnus the Swan.  It is characterized as a blue-white supergiant and is rated the 19th most luminous object in the sky.  It's distance from here is a matter of some debate, the nuts and bolts of which I won't attempt to explain.  The current estimates run from about 1500 to 2600 light years away.  What is known is that Deneb is around 200,000 times more luminous than Earth's star, and 200 times larger.  Like all giant stars, it's lifespan is far shorter than our star, and in fact has already begun to cool and expand as it has used up it's supply of hydrogen in the core.  Deneb's fate is uncertain, but it may become a red supergiant, finally exploding into a supernova a few million years from now.

Deneb
https://coraskywalker.files.wordpress.com/2010/05/deneb5.jpg

Altair is the alpha star in the constellation Aquila the Eagle.  This constellation is also home to the famous, evocative, and stunningly beautiful "Pillars of Creation" captured by the Hubble Space Telescope.  Altair is a relatively close 16.7 light years distant from Earth.  One of the unusual aspects of this star is it's very high rotational speed, about 180 miles per second.  By comparison, Earth's sun rotates at a comparatively sedate 1.2 miles per second.  Because of this, the star is not round, but oblate in appearance, confirmed when Altair became the first star ever directly imaged.  It is about 2 times the sun's size and mass, and eleven times brighter.  Also a short-lived star, Altair will last only about a billion years before it's outer layers begin to puff away, eventually leaving a small but incredibly dense white dwarf.

Altair, the first direct image of an extra-solar star.
By Altair_PR_image6.jpg: Ming Zhao, John Monnierderivative work: [[User:Omnidom 999|Omnidoom 999]] [[User Talk:Omnidom 999|'''ⁿسالكانⁿ''']] (talk) - Altair_PR_image6.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6026702

A dust disk has been detected around the star, but is thought to be leftover debris from the star's formation and not a nursery for planets.

The third partner in this trio is Vega, the brightest star in the constellation Lyra the Harp.  It is a blue-tinged white main-sequence star, about 25 light years from Earth.  Like Altair, the star has an extremely high rotational speed, 170 miles per second and is therefore also oblate in shape.  It is twice the sun's mass, about 2.7 times the sun's circumference, and 40 times brighter.  Again a short-lived star, Vega, like Altair, is halfway through it's billion-year lifespan and will eventually become a red giant.  When the outer layers are finally shed, a small white dwarf will remain.

Vega in near infrared light, showing the dust disk.
By Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona - Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=651561


Vega has been called the most important star in the sky except the sun.  In 1850, it was the first star to be photographed, the first star to have it's EM spectra measured, and the first star to have an orbiting dust disk discovered.  Modern analysis strongly suggests the presence of several Neptune or Jupiter-sized planets orbiting the star.  Because of known wobbles in Earth's polar axis (called precession) Vega was the northern pole star 12,000 years ago, and will be again about 13,000 years hence.  The current pole star, the one aligned along Earth's axis, is the star known as Polaris.  Interestingly, because of the alignments, Earth's sun is Vega's pole star.  Vega has held a prominent place in the legends and histories of every human culture, and still fascinates today.

This kind of information fascinates me, although excessively boring to others.  When I look up at the night sky, my mind is filled with questions, most of which are unanswerable.  I understand that I am not looking at a static image, but thousands of objects that are evolving, changing, being born, and dying.  From here, those points of light appear to be placidly beautiful.  But up close they are often very violent and deadly places.  With the continuing gains in sensor capability, our knowledge and understanding of the universe will continue to increase.  But like many such inquiries, the discovery of one answer will generate a hundred new questions, and the quest begins anew.

Does the knowledge  of that vast unknown make me feel small and insignificant?  Sometimes.  But more and more often, I understand so much more clearly how precious life is, how short a life can be, and the absolute need not to waste either.

It is, you might say, my responsibility to the universe.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Walking My World


The Appalachian Trail in Autumn.
One of the most beautiful places and times in the world.

Copyright © 2018
By Ralph F. Couey

Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, and a regular weekly feature of his is what is known as "Mellinger's Minutes," a weekly Q&A with his readers.  Like all writers, aspiring and otherwise, I have those I read assiduously.  Sam is, hands-down, my favorite, not only because he's really, really good, but also because reading his stuff is for me a humbling experience.  I love to write, and have been a columnist in the past.  But to read his words is both to recognize the gulf of ability that exists between a piker like me and a full-blown professional writer like him, and also to continue to inspire me to elevate my own writing to a higher and more lyrical plane.

In this week's column, he discussed various aspects of the Chief's recent hard-fought loss against New England.  But he was asked by one reader to describe his favorite places to run.  That question and his response sent me into one of those treasured spaces of introspection from which good writing hopefully springs forth.

In the summer of 2012, after a precipitous weight loss following lap band surgery the year before, I started running again.  That summer was a roaster in Northern Virginia, so my efforts were mostly confined to treadmills, building up from a mile and a half to four miles per session.  In the fall, when the weather finally began to cool down, I took my exercise outside.  A year passed and during one of my regular visits to my retinue of doctors, I was told that while they were thrilled with the results al those miles had on my heart health, if I didn't want to be in a wheelchair by age 70, I needed to do add some lower impact activities.  Walking, they said, was just as healthy as running.  As anyone who has engaged in both activities, that statement encourages a huge grain of salt.  Anyway, I took up hiking.

Northern Virginia is a great place to undertake such an activity.  There are walking paths throughout the commonwealth, from the greatness of the Appalachian Trail, that slashes diagonally across the state for some 550 miles, to park and forest trails, including the extensive trail systems that populate the numerous Civil War sites.  Literally just down the road from our home is the Manassas Battlefield.  The National Park is bisected by Sudley Road and Lee Highway (US 29).  On either side of Sudley Road there are two trails, one 5.5 miles, the other 6.5 miles covering the expanse of ground upon which two crucial and very bloody battles were fought in 1861 and 1862.  The trails are all dirt, a real plus, and the scenery through which one hikes is nothing short of beautiful, especially in the fall.  It was my go-to place because it was close and somewhat challenging.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Musings On a Night Sky

The sky over Pearl City looking to the southwest
from the downloadable app Cartes du Ciel

Copyright © 2018
By Ralph F. Couey

I have taken to spending the post-sunset hours in the backyard with my feet up in a zero gravity chair looking up at the sky.  By that time of the evening, the air has cooled somewhat, and at times there is a pleasant breeze making things very comfortable after the heat of the day.  There is a lot of light pollution here, but there are still a few stars visible, and of course the brighter planets.  

Now, in the process of preparing to relocate, we rid ourselves of a lot of stuff, but somehow upon arrival discovered we had inadvertently included a pair of 10x50 Bushnell binoculars.  I'm not at all sure how we acquired them, or why we still have them.  But they have come in handy from time to time.  Tonight, remembering them hanging on a hook in our room, I took them outside with me.  

I set up my chair in a spot where I had a pretty good slice of the sky visible towards the west and southwest, free of the two large trees in the backyard and the neighbor's roof.  I hadn't consulted a star chart before doing this -- not wanting to work too hard at this -- so I wasn't sure exactly what I'd be looking at.  But the first object I turned the glasses towards was a bright point of light fairly low in the southwest.  As soon as the object came in view, I knew exactly what it was:  Jupiter.  

When I was in the Navy, one of the things I enjoyed doing after late watches was to go up on the signal bridge.  Up there was a very powerful set of binoculars mounted in a steel frame.  The purpose of them was to spot and identify ships on the horizon.  But when you turned them in the vertical direction (and as long as the ship was in calm seas) you could see some pretty remarkable things.  Jupiter was always fun because if you looked carefully, you could see several of its moons.  If you knew where to look and it was the right time of year, you could see Saturn, although the rings could not be resolved.  Mars was a visible red disk, and there were other things you could see as well.  At the right latitude, you could catch stunning views of the stellar nursery of the Orion Nebula.