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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

Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Universe, and Defining "Far, Far Away"

Gliese 581d orbiting it's red star
 © Space.com

Copyright © 2016
by Ralph F. Couey
Except attributed images.

It is the gift of the human curiosity and the power of the mind that allows us to look up into the night sky and think about what's out there.  People have been doing that for millions of years, always curious, always wondering.  Our literature and entertainment reflect that curiosity through the frequent use of space and alien planets in books, television and movies.  We have, vicariously at least, traveled far on voyages driven by the power of imagination.  But it goes beyond mere diversions.

One of winter's singular charms is the ability for us to view the night sky in high definition.  the stars shine bright and clear and somehow seem closer.  Last night after I returned home late from work, I took a moment to look up.  Above me hung the familiar constellation of Orion the Hunter.  My eyes traced the familiar stars, Betelgeuse and Bellatrix, Saiph and Rigel marking the corners of the formation, and the belt stars, Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka.  Below the belt was the fuzzy patch of the Orion Nebula where new stars were being born as I watched.  The constellation, as are nearly all of them, is an illusion born by perspective.  The stars are not adjacent to each other, but rather range in distances from 700 to 2,000 light years. If the Earth was a light year or so to the left or right, our constellations would look very different.  Still, I remain fascinated by the stars, and the universe in which they inhabit.

For thousands of years, we only knew the stars and the planets in our own solar family.  In recent years, however, planets outside the solar system have been discovered, some 1,906 in 1,208 other solar systems.  The first reaction most humans have to that news is, "Are they inhabited?"

It's a natural question.  Even for those who understand just how vast the universe is, there is still the desire to know that we humans are not alone; that somewhere out there is someone else.

People's perceptions are naturally spoiled by science fiction, where heroes surf light years with ease, and even the most distant planets can be reached over a long afternoon.  That is, of course, a story element rising out of the necessity to move the narrative forward as quickly as possible.  That occurs even on this planet.  Did you ever notice that during the popular series "24" that Jack Bauer and his Tac Teams were never more than 15 minutes away from anywhere?  If you've ever lived in LA or DC you know that to be the stuff of fiction.

Inside the solar system we use miles to measure distances.  Beyond Neptune, the Kuiper Belt, and the Oort Cloud, the decimal places become too large to be understandable.  The unit of measure used is the light year, the distance light travels in a year.  It is a good standard because the speed of light, 186,000 miles per second, is as close to a universal standard as we are ever likely to have.  At that rate, light travels 5.9 trillion miles in a year.  While this makes distances easier to digest, at the same time it masks just how far that truly is.

The fastest spacecraft ever launched by the human species (outside of fiction) is Voyager 1.  Launched September 5, 1977, it was sent on a grand tour of the outer solar system, bringing back our first close-up images of Jupiter and Saturn and a few of their family of moons.  Using gravitational slingshot maneuvers, the spacecraft was then sent out of the solar system, passing the notional edge of the sun's influence on August 25, 2012.  Voyager 1 is now traveling at better than 38,000 miles per hour.  But even at that speed, and having traversed some 12.4 billion miles in 38 years, it has only gone 1/720th of a light year. At this rate, it will take about 17,700 years to travel one light year.

And that's with the fastest thing humans have ever built.

The nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is 4.2 LY away, so if Voyager was headed in that direction, we could expect the probe to arrive in roughly 73,775 years.  Wolf 359 (a tip of the cap to Star Trek fans here) is 7.7 LY.  To go there aboard humanity's fastest craft would take 135,254 years.  Let's put that in perspective.  If Neanderthal pre-humans had launched such a craft, it would just now be arriving at its destination.

The discovery of the exoplanets caused quite a stir.  While life outside our solar system remains undiscovered, we now know there is at least the possibility because there are some places for it to appear and evolve.  One of the most promising is a planet named Gliese 581-c, slightly larger than earth with heavier gravity orbiting a red sun.  (Why it was not named Krypton perhaps suggests a stunning lack of imagination on the part of scientists.)  G581-C is 20.4 light years away, and some less-than fully informed have taken up the cry that "we should go there as soon as possible."  20.4 doesn't sound like much until you calculate the actual distance.  

120.36 trillion miles.

At 38,000 mph, the fastest any human object has ever gone...

358,335 years.

358,000 years ago, the dominant human ancestor was a creature called Homo Erectus, perhaps this handsome couple...

Painting by Zdenek Burian

This was the species that figured out how to use fire to cook food, thereby inventing (if by extension) the parking lot tailgate.

The point being, even if a multi-generation ship made that trip, evolution would continue its inexorable march and those who arrived would no longer be representative of the Earthlings left behind.

We are probably dealing with the ultimate of unanswerable questions. Our galaxy, all 200 billion stars of it, and the universe, all 300 billion galaxies could be teeming with intelligent technological species.

But we will never know of them.  Nor they of us.  They're just too far away.

Reality is a tough thing with which to deal, especially when our hearts want so badly the fantasy. But the reality in this case is that while we may not be alone in the universe, we will always feel like we're alone.

But that doesn't, for me, take away the wonder or the beauty of the night sky on a winter's night.

And I will never stop asking that unanswerable question.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Notes From Inside The Blizzard of 2016

Copyright © 2016
by Ralph F. Couey

For a week they warned us.  The Big One was coming, the blizzard to end all blizzards.  At least until the next one, anyway.  Television meteorologists are sometimes accused of over-hype, but that was not the case for this epic weather event.

The initial predictions were in the 10 inch range.  But as the days passed, the forecasted snow totals went up.  In the last 12 hours before the first flakes began to fly, we were told to expect 20 to 30 inches.  With the forecasts came warnings from city, county, and state officials to stock up the home larders and be home or shelter in place by 5 pm Friday.  

Up till that week, Northern Virginia really hadn't seen any snow.  Oh, there had been one or two instances of flurries and snow showers, but nothing that left any trace of its passage.  Then on Wednesday, an inch of snow fell in the area.  Many counties made the decision to not pre-treat the roads, as the temperatures would cause the brine mixture to freeze.  The result was predictable.  The light snowfall became ice and 150 motorists came to grief across the DMV as a result.  This caused a great deal of apprehension.  Here we were staring down the barrel of an historic blizzard after the unreasonable chaos resulting from just an inch of snow.

Thursday was sunny, if exquisitely cold, the wind bringing a bite to the already chilly temperatures.  All day long, on radio, TV, and in the papers, the mantra continued.  Stock up, make plans, prepare to hunker down until at least Monday.  Friday dawned cloudy and chilly, and people took the morning and early afternoon to complete preparations.  The first flakes arrived here in Loudoun County around 12:30, light snow which lasted for a bit, then stopped.  The big stuff arrived about a half-hour later and immediately the grass and roads began to turn white.  Cheryl was on call overnight Friday, and the hospital management mandated that they stay the night there, rather than take the chance of not being able to answer an emergency call.  I drove her there about 5:00.  The snow had really picked up by then and was already several inches deep on the roads.  Still, we got there without too much drama.  She went in, and I went home.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Humans and Heavy Snow

From the Web
Unattributed, which is a shame
because this is so hilarious.
And so true.

Copyright © 2016
by Ralph F. Couey

There are, as you know, four seasons, each with their own beauty and challenges.  Spring brings strong spring thunderstorms and tornados, while covering the world with new life and wildflowers.  Summer is heat and humidity, and is also the time for family and games. Fall is the breathtaking colors of the trees, and the bite of the first frost.

Winter, of course, is snow.  And cold.  Short days and long nights.  But it's also a time of matchless beauty.  Who hasn't been amazed at the diamond twinkles of an untouched snowfield under a brilliant sun?  And there simply is no better time to stargaze.

Winter is different, depending on where a person lives.  If you're lucky enough to live in Florida or Southern California, then you have (comparatively) warm temps, sun, and occasionally rain.  If you're in the mountain west, its months of bitter cold and endless snowstorms.  The midwest and south have their share of snow, but the real worry are the ice storms that destroy powerlines and trees.  In the east, New England is positively polar.  Here in the Mid-Atlantic, Winter is mostly cold and occasional snow, which is usually good because so many people move here from other places, usually people who become complete idiots when there is any precipitation.  

Yesterday, the DC area had one inch of snow.  One inch.  The result was a mess of catastrophic proportions on area freeways.  Area law enforcement logged over 150 vehicle accidents during an evening commute that for some stretched into 6 hours.

But that was only the opening act.  Tomorrow, January 22nd will see the area blasted by a classic nor'easter storm.  The snow will start early afternoon Friday and will fall heavily until pre-dawn Sunday.  Forecasters in describing the storm have used the term "historic."  Snowfall forecasts are running from 12 inches on the Eastern Shore of Maryland to over 30 inches in the suburbs of Northern Virginia.  For the first time in living memory, the entire region is under a blizzard warning.  The effect on a population who couldn't handle one inch of the white stuff has been an entertaining laboratory of human misbehavior.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Hiking, Part 37

I take my heart for a walk in the woods
and listen to the magic whispers
of the old trees.

Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey
Except quoted and cited passages.

It was a gloomy winter day, made even more dull by the absence of any snow during this thus far anomalous winter.  The temperatures were chilly, in the upper 40's with the air still damp from overnight rains.  Not much of a day to be outside, but I was in a restless mood and I needed some time in the woods.

I had a few hours, so I chose a place relatively close to home. Bull Run Mountains Conservancy controls a patch of land within the larger 12,000 acres of the Bull Run Mountains Special Project Area.  Within those 2,500 acres, situated just north of Thoroughfare Gap, are a network of trails.  One of them ascends to the top of the ridge, called High Point, a rocky outcrop from where stunning views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the intervening valley can be experienced.  That was my target on this day, but the Conservancy had closed that particular trail for an indefinite period of repair.  Coming face to face with a wire barrier, I shrugged to myself and decided instead to explore the other trails within the area.

I left the parking area and crossed the Norfolk & Southern railroad tracks and headed into the woods.  I passed the stone walls of the Beverley Mill, partially restored.  A bit further, I came upon the remains of a structure identified on the map as the "upper mill."

Friday, January 15, 2016

The Affection for the Past

Copyright © 2016
by Ralph F. Couey

"Nostalgia is a useless, futile thing because it is a
longing for something that is permanently lost."
--Dave Nicholls

It catches me in my most unguarded moments, sweeping me away on a wave of yearning; I become temporarily a prisoner of a snippet of memory made sweet by a selective form of recollection.  In a present fraught with stress and overwork hunted by a future whose strongest attribute is uncertainty, my mind is taken over by a scene, a random event from the past that seems so much more peaceful...and safe...than I now feel.

Humans have the capacity for memory storage, a seemingly vast collection of both the important and the trivial; the taste of certain meal or the feel of the perfect summer day.  We remember passwords and team rosters, but sometimes struggle over where the car keys went.  Still, the brain is a remarkable instrument.

Within my brain reside memories of my life; events and people mainly.  But once in a while, it will dredge up a brief random recollection which brings a sad kind of smile and a silent eulogy for what was.  The present is a busy one, every hour of every day filled with a demand or sense of duty for seemingly every other minute.  I can, thanks to memory, go back instantly to a spring day, my 7th birthday when my parents gave me two boxes to open, both containing the kind of gifts dear to the heart of a boy, a moving van and a fire truck.  Sometimes looking at a picture from the distant past, I am at a loss to recall that particular moment.  But this one I remembered.  The above photo was taken by my Dad as I played with my new toys, momentarily distracted by something on a black-and-white television.  Probably The Jetsons or Top Cat.  That day I remember as a good day, because I was off from school, I had the whole summer before me, and a couple of snazzy trucks to fill those hours.  I remember running them around the carpet, making engine and siren noises, and just plain having fun. 

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Homelessness, and Finding Hope

Blaisdell Park, Pearl City, Hawaii
From Barry@mypearlcity.com

Copyright © 2016 by Ralph F. Couey
Written material only.

It was the 5th day of my 10-day stay in Hawaii.  I woke up early to go for a run.  I had been chugging up the long hill of Waimano Home Road for a couple of days, so I decided to seek an easier route.  I drove down the hill to Blaisdell Park, what used to be called Pearl Harbor Park, perched along the shoreline of East Loch in Pearl Harbor.  There was an asphalt trail there that runs just over 5 miles from Aiea Bay Park to the Honolulu Police Academy in Waipahu.  On my previous visits, I had made frequent use of the trail, mainly for walking.  My memory of the trail is mainly of illegal trash dumps along the waterfront fighting for visual space with the magnificent views of the harbor.  Of course, it's been 11 years since my last visit, so the area has changed.

I pulled into the parking lot at Blaisdell Park, and after stretching, headed for the trail.  The first thing that caught my eye was a line of tents between the trail and the water.  As I came closer, I realized that this park had become one of many of the homeless encampments on O'ahu.  

I headed west towards the Navy base, and as I ran, I saw that there were encampments almost all along the trail, essentially wherever there was space to pitch a tent.  Remembering that this was where trash used to be dumped, now people are dumped.

Homelessness is a national problem, but an especially acute one for Honolulu.  In June 2015, the City conducted a point-in-time survey of the camps and concluded that there were just under 5,000 homeless people on O'ahu.  This equates to a rate of 487 per million, the highest in the United States.

There are several elements that drive this crises.  Hawaii in general, and Honolulu in particular, is one of the most expensive places in the world to live.  It is estimated that a family of 4 requires a monthly income (after taxes) of just under $4,000.  Rents run from around $1,600 to more than $5,000, and what is available at the low end would embarrass a lawnmower, let alone a family.  Because almost all the food has to be shipped from the Mainland (as the locals call the lower 48) it is shockingly expensive.  Put simply, living here is just as expensive as Manhattan.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Hiking, Part 36

Aiea Ridge

Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey
Words and pictures.

For the last hike on this trip, I chose the Aiea Valley.  This hike follows a contour just below the ridge line, so takes you above the valley, not in it.  As it turned out, that's a good thing.

The trailhead starts at the entrance to Keaiwa Heiau State Park.  A Heiau is a sacred place to the Hawaiian people, usually a burial ground.  After parking, we found the trail and headed up.  The character of the terrain and vegetation reminded me a lot of the Appalachian trail.  The trail cut into the hillside and flanked by a forest of conifer and deciduous trees.  The trail surface was a mixed bag, sometimes dry and fast, sometimes wet and slow, and at one point just downright boggy.  But a fun trail, nonetheless.

HIking, Part 35

Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey
Words and pictures

After the somewhat scary Wiliwilinui hike, we turned to an easier trek.  Ka'ena Point is the northwest tip of O'ahu.  If you can envision O'ahu as a kind of ship, Ka'ena is the tip of the bow.  The point is not accessible by road unless you own a serious trail-rated 4WD vehicle with plenty of ground clearance.  You can either start at the end of Kamehameha Highway, from the Waianae coast, or from the North Shore off Farrington Highway.  We took that starting point.  Arriving early around sunrise, we were able to find a good place to park.  There were a few campers and surf casters, but not many people at all.

The hike route is actually a service road, but in name only.  It starts smooth, but soon fills with washouts and deep ruts where vehicles have dug deep holes in the surface.  There are also places of deep mud, requiring the hiker to move to the edge.

It takes a bit less than three miles along this path, but the scenery is magnificent, with the ocean to the left and the steep mountains to the right.

Hiking, Part 34

Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey
Words and pictures

Most people go to Hawaii for the beaches.  Having lived there for a number of years, I am pretty well beached out.  When my wife started planning for the biennial trip back to see her family, I as usual resisted going, citing expense, time. etc., etc., etc.  But one evening she started telling me the hiking she used to do when she was young.  In my mind, the recollections came back of looking at those razor-edged Ko'olau and Waianae mountains, and I conceded she might have a good idea.  I invested in a book, "Hikers Guide to O'ahu" by  Stuart M. Ball, Jr., containing some 52 hikes, ranging from the ridiculously easy to the easily ridiculous.  After pouring over the book for a month, I chose three hikes, a ridge hike, a shore hike, and a valley hike, hitting one each of the types available.

The first hike we took the day after we arrived, the only day when our youngest daughter and her husband would be there.  I chose the 5-mile Wiliwilinui ridge hike, on the strength of the view from the top of the mountain from which one could see two sides of the island.

Being primarily an Appalachian Trail day hiker, I was pretty sure I could handle whatever Hawaii could throw at me.  I was wrong.

A tropical island has several distinct weather patterns, based on the interaction with trade winds, mountains, and ocean moisture.  It could be sunny and warm at one location, and rainy, foggy, and cool someplace else.  I failed to take that into account.

The trail head is accessed through a rather high-rent neighborhood called Waialae Iki V, guarded by a gate house from which you must obtain a hiking pass.  The steep drive up to the gate provides million-dollar views, exceeded only by the multi-million-dollar residences.

Looking at the back side of Diamond Head.

Imagine waking up to this every morning.


Photo © 2015 by Ralph F. Couey

Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey

"A vacation is what you take
when you can no longer take
what you've been taking."
--Earl Wilson

We all work hard.  That's a given, and not just at our jobs.  The range of responsibilities that adults shoulder range from bringing home the bacon to caring for children and in some cases, aging parents.  Over time, those burdens weigh ever heavier on us, creating stress that cuts into the state of our health.  Which is why vacations were invented.  This is that precious (paid) time off that we earn from employers after toting their barges and lifting their bales for an entire year.

What we do with that time varies as well.  Some of us prefer the so-called "stay-cations," taking time off, but staying close to home.  Others plan trips ranging from forays to the local mountains or lakes, to epic overseas adventures.  What we do on those trips depends on the personality of those involved.  Some plan every minute of the two weeks with tours, activities, parties, concentrating on having fun.  Others spend the time unplugged from everyone and everything, emptying the brain and relaxing the body and spirit.  I'm in this last group to a degree, but not completely.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Hope, Love, and The Hunger Games

Image by Kendra Miller
Image used under terms of license by Creative Commons

Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey
Written content only.

Like so many others, I waited with great anticipation for the release of the fourth and final installment of the Hunger Games movie franchise.  I was roped into watching the first movie, thanks to an epic Pennsylvania snowstorm and an insistent offspring.  But it didn't take long for the story to get my attention.  After the second movie, I purchased the books on Kindle and read the entire trilogy.  When it was first publicized, I dismissed it as a JATM (Just Another Teen Movie).  But the story, I found, went so much deeper for me.

The success of the franchise shows that I am not alone in the tone of resonance it struck with millions. Since everyone who hasn't been living in a hole in the ground over the past four years knows about the story, I won't re-hash it here.  But I have been exploring in my mind and heart exactly why this story has gotten my attention.

There are some political science-related themes artfully buried within the tale.  The danger of a government using war as an excuse for taking full control of it's population.  The danger of having a pampered populace whose every need is met by the government and thereby loses its own sense of self-determination.  The hazards of class warfare.  Oppression creates rebellion, and past a certain point, people will give up their lives rather than live in bondage.  

And in the last film, those who lead a revolution should never lead a government.

But what I found most interesting was the elements of hope and love.

Hope and love.  Two concepts inescapably intertwined by human nature.  Love cannot exist without hope; nor can hope survive without love.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Tree of Our Lives

Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey

"Christmas waves a magic wand over this world,
and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful."
--Norman Vincent Peale

During this season, we will see around us the signs and symbols that are so much a part of Christmas.  They are an interesting mix of religious and secular.  The Nativity scenes, the wreaths on the doors, the lights on buildings everywhere...all combine to lift spirits.  Most of these symbols are universal, and thus have lost a bit of their meaning to us personally.  But the one symbol of Christmas that touches in a very personal way is the Christmas Tree.

For our family, it is the centerpiece of the decorations adorning our home, and when the tree goes up and the lights go on, usually on the day after Thanksgiving, it is the Peanuts gang singing to us, "Christmastime is here."

There are several reasons.  First of all, it's just beautiful to behold.  No matter how many times I walk past it, it catches my attention for at least a few seconds.  And those are happy seconds.  When the tree goes up, the boxes of ornaments come out of storage, and the whole family pitches in on the decorating.  Whether old or young, adult or child, it is a happy time to be together.

Monday, November 23, 2015

To Stand in Unity

Paris, 11/13
© 2015 TASS

Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey
Written content only
except quoted and cited passages.

It was around 7:30 pm on the US east coast when the first reports came in. "Several incidents of gunfire and explosions reported in Paris, France." In a world where reports of violent, bloody terror attacks have become depressingly common, those initial reports raised a good many eyebrows. But it wasn't long before we knew that what was happening in the City of Light was, in fact, a professionally planned and executed attack against the people of Paris. As the details became known, we became glued to television and media sites on the Internet, breathless as new details came in. The death toll started at 13, then 18, 28, and the number kept rising until the count of the victims at the Bataclan Arts Center became known. In all, 130 innocent Parisians, all out for a night on the town, were murdered by gunmen of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (or Levant), otherwise known as ISIS/ISIL.

In most cases, such news is reported as an aftermath. In this case, however, when the news was breaking around the world, the attacks were still on-going in what turned out to be seven different locations.

I was in Paris just this past June. It was a delightful stay, highlighted by the French people who could not have been friendlier or more helpful to a confused Yankee tourist. The police presence was obvious, and was joined by soldiers of the French Army who walked the streets and subways of Paris with automatic weapons, not slung over their shoulders, but carried across their chests, loaded and ready for immediate use; their heads on a swivel, their eyes watchful.

© 2015 by Ralph F. Couey

That ISIS is capable of such violence is old news. Since the group's genesis in 1999, it has grown steadily in numbers and capability. In the last year or so, the group, now an army, has steadily marched through Iraq, leaving a trail of tortured and beheaded civilians -- including women and children -- in their wake. ISIS now has an armed presence in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Algeria, Pakistan, Nigeria and the North Caucasus. It also has members positioned in Morocco, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, the Indian Sub-Continent, and Turkey. Most disturbing for the United States, ISIS, through a professionally-run social media campaign, has attracted an unsettling number of adherents here.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

This Moment of Triumph

A journey ended,
a purpose fulfilled,
a dream come true.
© 2015 CNN.com

© 2015 by Ralph F. Couey
Written content and hat picture only.

As dawn broke, I gained consciousness with a smile, unusual for a Monday morning.  The reason for that smile was that my mood was still soaring in the wake of the delirium of joy experienced the night before.

Hours before, the Kansas City Royals had come from behind once again (a mere two runs this time), tying the game in the 9th inning on an insanely risky piece of base running by Eric Hosmer.  It took three extra innings before a 5-run outburst finally put the stubborn Mets down for the count.  Then came the penultimate moment.  The one dreamed of and desperately awaited.  Wade Davis, the stoic Silent Assassin, fired a 1-2 fastball across the inside corner at the knees.  The Umpire emphatically punched the air signalling strike three, but the batter, Wilmer Flores, was already on his way back to the dugout before the gesture was barely begun.  The game, the Series, the season was over and the Royals in New York and their fans in Kansas City simultaneously leapt for joy.

The Kansas City Royals have won the World Series.

It is difficult, if not impossible to overstate the meaning and importance of this triumph.  30 years ago, a similar celebration erupted at the victorious end of a different World Series.  But the bright lights of victory were followed by an inexplicable collapse.  Other than a brief and irrelevant appearance in the playoffs in the strike-shortened season of 1981, 29 years would pass before the Royals once again played meaningful baseball.  For a goodly (or badly) part of that stretch, the Royals were laughing stocks, the butt of a thousand cruel jokes.

In 2000, David Glass brought his cost-cutting talents to the ownership position.  The team promptly embarked on a long string of almost comical ineptitude, but Glass managed to save the team financially, putting them back in the black.  Most importantly, he vowed to keep the team in Kansas City.   In June 2006, Glass hired Dayton Moore, an executive with the highly successful Braves organization, a man with substantial experience in player development.

It proved to be a management team of vision and patience.  Moore and Glass knew they could never compete for free agent glitterati, so they instead began to search out young talent who not only possessed baseball skills, but also the proper mindset.  The Royals mined the Caribbean and struck a motherlode of talent.  A few MLB experts as early as 2011 could detect the nascent glow on the horizon of what had been a very dark sky, heralding the dawn of a new era.  In 2013, the Royals finished with a winning record.  It was only the second finish above .500 in 19 years.  The baseball world took note, but not serious note.  After all, this was the Royals.

Monday, October 26, 2015

The Unsolved Mystery of the Kansas City Royals

The Silent Assassin with a rare, but well-earned display of emotion.
© 2015 Kansas City Star

Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey
Written content only

The Kansas City Royals are headed for the World Series.  Again.  There is a delicious sense of justification in this spectacular achievement, considering that nobody, and I mean nobody among the experts thought they would finish higher than third in the AL Central Division.  You see, according to them, last year was a fluke, a one-and-done thing by a team that had the temerity to believe they could in fact win it all.  Of course, they didn't, leaving Alex Gordon on third in the bottom of the 9th in Game 7 of last year's Fall Classic.  But they did eke out a win against Oakland and blew past the Angels and Orioles, sweeping both.  In the World Series against the Giants, they fought and scratched, and occasionally dominated the Bay Area Boys, taking them literally to the last pitch of the last inning of the last game.

After an off-season spent listening to reporters from MLB Television and ESPN reduce that momentous achievement to something that belonged in a book by a fellow named Ripley, the Royals stormed out of the gates, winning the first seven in a row.  They took sole possession of first place on June 18th and never looked back, clicking along at an astounding .650 pace.  From that point on, they were the best team in the American League, and second-best in baseball behind those pesky Redbirds at the other end of I-70.

Being a KC ex-pat, I have to follow the team through whatever internet resources I can locate.  This became difficult.  Through the latter half of June and into July, August, and September, I experienced the daily frustration of looking for news stories about the Royals.  But going to the MLB.com and ESPN websites, I had to dredge past a mountain of articles about teams from New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, and L.A.  If I wanted to read anything at all about the two best teams in baseball, I had to use the search box.

I do understand that among the national sports media, one has to kowtow at least a bit to the MMM's, or Major Media Markets.  After all, that's where the numbers (read: $$) are.  But to steadfastly ignore the game's two best teams for the better part of two-and-a-half months seems almost a dereliction of journalistic duty.  Had the Yankees and Mets that that dominant for that long, I have little doubt that we the reading public would have seen nothing else.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Hiking, Part 33

Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey

Having been entranced by Shenandoah National Park last week, we decided to go back again today.  Looking at my trusty trail book, I decided we'd try the Jenkins Gap trail, heading up to Compton Peak.

We drove back out to Front Royal, and then turned south to the park entrance.  Once in, we headed south on Skyline Drive to the parking area near mile post 12.  It took a moment to locate the trail access, but find it we did and we headed out.

It was another picture-perfect fall day in Virginia.  I know that we will pay the price in January for this great weather now, so better to take every opportunity to be outside.  The trail was rolling in a very picturesque way, and was a pleasure to hike.  The trees were closer to peak color that last week, and the smell of autumn was definitely in the air.  We swung along comfortably for about a mile and a half.  At that point, I began to get curious.  We were supposed to reach the side trail to the peak by then.  But no side trail presented itself.  I should point out that there were a lot more people on the trail that I was used to seeing on hikes.  Most of these were day hikers like us, but at one point we encountered a couple of trail codgers, guys who just "had the look" of AT veterans.  We stopped to talk to them, finding out that they had put in near Roanoke and were working their way northwards.  When asked where we were bound, I replied confidently, "Compton Peak."  This remark produced some furrowed brows, and as we continued on, I could see them consulting their map.  "Excuse me."  At this salutation, I turned around.  "Did you say you were headed for Compton Peak?"  After my affirmative response, they came carefully and politely toward me, holding their map up like a talisman.  After some consultation and comparison, they pointed out with respect and care, that we were headed in the wrong direction.

Friday, October 16, 2015

A Place of Peace

Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey

In my time here in Virginia, I've taken the opportunity to visit several of the Civil War battlefields that dot the landscape.  It is always a thought-provoking time, as it should be when one comes face-to-face with the Nation's history.

There is a...well...a sense that can be felt by anyone who makes the effort to open themselves up to such things.  As I've written before, anyplace that has been visited by violent death has a different feel to the land.  You see and hear the quiet, broken only by the wind and wildlife.  But underneath that veneer of calm lies something else; a tense feeling of disquiet, as though those who died here never truly found rest.  

If a person is perceptive enough to recognize such things, it can make the experience of visiting a battlefield more complete, perhaps reaching at least an ephemeral understanding of the events that transpired so long ago.

On this particular day, my wife and I visited the historic village of Appomattox Court House.  This village, a separate entity from the town of Appomattox, started out as a stop on the stage line that ran from Richmond to Lynchburg.  Accordingly, its sole building at first was the Clover Hill Tavern, built around 1819.  In 1845, the village was established as the seat of Appomattox County.  There was some growth initially, a courthouse, jail, and a few other government buildings, but the anticipated train line ran instead to Appomattox Station, about three miles away.  The village began to languish as businesses moved to be close to the railroad.  By the time the Civil War arrived, the village consisted of five houses, along with the tavern and courthouse.  For most of the war, the area remained relatively peaceful.  However as April 1865 approached, this small, inconsequential community became the focal point of the entire war.

After staging his breakout from the siege of Petersburg, the remnants of Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia fled to the west, hoping to eventually turn south and meet up with the Army of the Tennessee.  Lee's men were hungry and exhausted.  Supplies had been largely cut off by the Union's interdiction of the railroads.  Still, they marched.  At least most of them.  Lee's army had been a highly cohesive one, but the combination of the long march, no food, and a sense that the war was in its last days poked a hole through which starving deserters flowed like so much grain.  In the time it took to march from Petersburg to the battle at Sailor's Creek, it is estimated that this army bled some 30,000 soldiers.  

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Hiking, Part 32

Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey

We heard that in the Shenandoah the leaves were near or at peak, so with a day off from work, we headed west.  Usually for leaf enjoyment, all we have to do is drive down Skyline Drive.  This time, we decided to explore one of the plethora of hiking trails that criss-cross this magnificent National Park.

After entering the park at the north end south of Front Royal, we drove to the first visitors center at Dickey Ridge.  After consulting the map, we decided to do two trails that are normally (sort of) connected.  The first one was the Fox Hollow Trail. This is a short 1.4-miler that drops down the slope of the ridge to the site of the farm of one Thomas Fox. His family farmed this 450 acres for over 100 years before being displaced by the establishment of the Park in 1935.  The family cemetery, one of 100 such in the park, is at the lower end of this loop trail.  The trail itself starts across the road from the visitors center and starts downhill from its intersect with the Dickey Ridge Trail.  The leaves are nice, predominantly yellow, though you can see that the winds have been at work here, as there are noticeably bare branches and the ground is covered with a fresh layer.

After a fairly straight trek, the trail takes a sharp bend to the right and you find yourself at the cemetery.

 That small black metal cross on the left signifies a Confederate Civil War veteran.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Hiking, Part 31

Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey

Autumn is my favorite time of year, and October is for me the best month.  Regular readers of this blog are undoubtedly heartily sick of reading those words, but repetition doesn't make them less true.

Today was a gorgeous picture-perfect early fall day. The sun, after a solid week of clouds, wind, and rain made a return appearance and brought with it a soul-satisfying 70 degrees.  My wife and I had intended to hike together, but a last-minute obligation kept her otherwise occupied.  She asked me to stay fairly close, so I made the short trip down the road to the Manassas Battlefield National Park.  The park contains some 5,000 unsullied acres preserving the sites of the first two major Civil War Battles in 1861 and 1862.  There are two trails, one of them a 5.5 mile loop on the east side of Sudley Road, and the other a 6.5 mile loop on the other side.  The character of the topography has been preserved, and where there were woods and fields in 1861/1862, woods and fields remain today, one of the best preserved of the battlefields from that war.  The two trails are loops, and if I had to return home early, there was the ability to cut cross-country back to the parking lot.

I arrived mid-morning, and the air which had been distinctly chilly had begun to warm nicely.  The sun's angle was notably lower in the sky, even as noontime approached and those low slanting rays gave the light that distinctive autumn feel.  The grass had begun to acquire that tawny look that so characterizes this time of year and while the leaves are still largely green, there were isolated patches of color to catch the eye.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Life and Disaster

Joaquin stalkin' across the Caribbean
© 2015 NOAA

It looked like it would be an interesting week. Last Monday, two rather grim forecasts began to approach a disturbing symmetry. First, an epic Nor'easter, one of those legendary Atlantic coast storms, would slam into the local area bringing tropical rainfall, high winds and certain flooding. Then, the day after, a full-fledged hurricane, at one point a vicious Cat 4, would storm ashore, making landfall right over the nation's capitol region. And after the Nor'easter's 6 to 10 inches of rain, the hurricane would dump an additional 10 to 20 inches along with a 10-foot storm surge into the Chesapeake, up the Potomac River, and into downtown Washington DC. Historic communities like Georgetown and Alexandria, cities with an almost 300-year history, would be inundated and destroyed. Freeways, bridges, roads, and the Metro light rail would be washed away, effectively paralyzing the entire region. Government would be forced into Continuity of Operations mode, shifting control and authority to remote scattered classified sites. First responders, overwhelmed by the disaster, would require the military to regain and maintain control. Hundreds of thousands would be made homeless; hundreds would die. The entire area would never be the same

No, this wasn't the script for a new disaster movie. This was the actual forecast faced by the six million people who live in the DMV, local shorthand for DC, Maryland, and Virginia.

But as time unfolded, both events turned out to be pretty much a local fizzle. The Nor'easter was far milder than forecasted. Don't get me wrong, we still got a ton of rain, up to 6 inches in some places, and pretty good winds. Trees were knocked down, some power was lost in the region, and there was some road damage. The beach areas along the Eastern Shore were beat up some and shoreside communities had some flooding. The hurricane, responding to a couple of pressure systems in the atmosphere, peeled off to the northeast and is headed steadily into the colder waters of the North Atlantic where it will meet its eventual demise.

All things considered, we were lucky. Some areas in the Carolinas took up to 11 inches of rain from those systems, and a lot of damage was done there. But it could have been much, much worse.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Hiking, Part 30

Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey

Today we went back to Harpers Ferry, but instead of tackling the precipitous ascents of either Loudoun or Maryland Heights, we decided on a much easier trek, the C & O Canal Tow Path.

The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was one of several projects envisioned by George Washington as a way to connect the east coast with the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley.  The C&O, or "Grand Old Ditch" as it came to be called, was built for the express purpose of transporting coal from the Allegheny Mountains eastward.  It was started in 1828 and completed in 1850, stretching 184 miles from what is now the Georgetown area of DC to Cumberland, Maryland and operated until 1924.  The route resulted in elevation changes totaling 605 feet, requiring some 74 locks and 11 aqueducts.  The boats were long and narrow, usually around 60 feet long and 7 to 10 feet wide, and could carry up to 130 tons of cargo. The unpowered boats were moved up and down river attached to teams of mules who were led along the towpath alongside the Canal.  

Floods were the bane of the Canal's existence and it was a major inundation in 1924 and the onset of the Great Depression of 1929 that put the final nail into the coffin of the Canal.  It languished for a number of years until 1938 when it was acquired by the National Park Service.  Eventually, some 22 mile of the canal from Georgetown was restored and in the 1940's, passenger boats were plying the waters north of Georgetown.  In 1961, President Eisenhower designated the Canal a National Monument, and by 1971, Richard Nixon signed into law the act creating the C & O Canal National Park. The canal's zero mile marker is on the Potomac River directly opposite the historically infamous Watergate Complex, a name that probably came from the opening gate to the canal, literally a "water gate."  This is especially ironic when you consider that it was Nixon who signed the law that created the Canal park.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

9/11 and The Inevitable Fade of Memory

Photo © 2011 by Ralph F. Couey

"Time moves in one direction;
Memory in another."
--William Gibson

Copyright © 2015
By Ralph F. Couey

Tomorrow marks the 14th anniversary of the events which transpired on September 11th, 2001.  On that bright, beautiful late-summer morning, terrorists took command of four airliners.  Two were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.  A third crashed into the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, and the fourth dove into a old strip mine near Shanksville, Pennsylvania after passengers and crew, alerted by what had already occurred, assaulted the terrorists, nearly reclaiming control of the aircraft.

As the images of the disaster poured out of our televisions, America was stunned.  We knew that terrorists did attacks, but they were always far away; Europe, Africa, the Middle East.  Surely, this couldn't happen here.  But on that day, the shock, sorrow, and anger that had been felt by others was brought home and deposited squarely in our laps.

America has been surprised before, most notably at Pearl Harbor in 1941, and again in Korea in 1950, and the question of "how?" is always asked.  The answer is usually tied to failures of intelligence or training and leadership.  But there's something larger at work, from a purely philosophical context.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Hiking, Part 29

 Harpers Ferry south
Elevation Profile

Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey
Photos and written content

Today was hot.  Today was humid.  Today was not a good day to hike.  But I was feeling very restless, and decided, perhaps rashly, to hit the trail, rationalizing that I would be in the shade for most of it.  So I got my hiking stuff together and hit the road.

I had been eyeing the Harpers Ferry area for some time.  The area has a lot of trails, even if you don't necessarily want to do the AT.  Loudoun Heights and Maryland Heights, where Stonewall Jackson's men hauled their artillery during the first Civil War battle fought here in September 1862.  It wouldn't be the last, as the town changed hands eight times by the time the war ended in 1865

Harpers Ferry sits at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers which meant that the area was always fated to be important both economically and strategically.  Quaker colonist Robert Harper received a patent in 1734, giving him control of 125 acres between the rivers.  He established a ferry across the Potomac, making the location the gateway to the agricultural treasure of the Shenandoah Valley.  Settlers who intended to carve out a plot of land in the valley rode the ferry across the river.  In 1763, the Virginia General Assembly officialized the settlement under the name, "Shenandoah Falls at Mr. Harper's Ferry."  Thomas Jefferson, when he visited in 1783, was awed by the sight.  He called it, "...perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature."