About Me

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

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

My First Book, and the World Created Therein

Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey

"Writing a story about a place 
calls that world into existence."
--Alan McCluskey

About six years ago while crawling through the impossible traffic that inundates the Washington DC metro area, I allowed my mind to wander a bit.  In that short-lived ramble, an idea came to me as a sort of a formless, nascent presence.  Over the next few months, I allowed that idea to toss about my mind, kind of like a sock in a dryer.  Eventually, the idea took a more substantial form from which a myriad of possibilities sprung.  About nine months later, I sat down at my computer and began to give life to those possibilities.  Five years hence, that promising genesis has grown into that most difficult of enterprises:  My first book.

This past week, after two months of invaluable therapy provided by my editor, the incomparable Dr. Gayle Herde, this long-awaited accomplishment went live on Amazon Kindle, under the title "Tales of Barely, Missouri."

In my late professional life, a big part of my job as an intelligence analyst was taking a simple idea and shepherding it from birth through analysis to completion.  It always felt like an accomplishment, particularly since the subject matter was always excruciatingly difficult.  But this was different.  This was personal.

In my mind, I created a small town in south Missouri.  Since the town was just barely inside the line separating Missouri from Arkansas, I named it "Barely."  Then, drawing on my memories of the kind of people I had met and come to know growing up in that state, I populated Barely with the kind of interesting characters that I felt would live there.  Barely is a very poor community.  Subsistence farming lies at the heart of its economy, subsistence meaning that only part of what they grow is sold.  A lot of it goes to survival.  People do have televisions, but cannot afford cable or satellite.  They are left with two channels that are viewed, more often than not, through a small blizzard of static.  Because of that, the information about the world at large is limited, but since every day is a struggle to get to the next, the larger events transpiring outside the steep hills and dense forests of Ridge County is almost irrelevant.

The folks of Barely are unsophisticated, true; but they possess a sense of morality and ethics that is grounded in the tradition of the generations that preceded them.  They know intimately the history of their families, but it's not likely that anyone is going to know much about the Peloponnesian War.  But there is a sense of unity, a shared feeling that in this thing called life, they are definitely in it together.  There is no envy or jealousy because everyone is equally poor.  And when one member of the community falls into misfortune, the rest pitch in to help.

You could almost say that the town lives in a kind of suspended animation as far as the outside world is concerned.  If one of the dead residents were to come back to life from a half-century before, they would see little, if any change. Barely goes on, day after day, floating through life as a branch meanders downstream floating languidly on the waters of Lester's Creek.

It's been interesting to analyze the development of this story in contrast to my own life.  I grew up watching the Woodstock Generation do battle with the Old Guard represented by those who had survived the Great Depression and World War II.  That kind of carefree attitude towards life lasted until the harsh reality of the 70's with its economic and social malaise.  The 1980's and 1990's were decades that put their own peculiar stamp on those who lived them. The turn of the century and the accompanying technological explosion changed everything.  I watched the world change in ways that I am still trying to understand.  Perhaps there is a part of me that yearns to live in a place like Barely where things don't change, and life remains a comprehensible existence.

Whatever my motivations were, Barely now lives inside my head.  The good people of the town also live in my heart.  I have a lot of affection for them because I know the courage that it takes to get up every morning and pile into that battle to survive, and to fall exhausted into bed at night only to do it all again. I admire people who fight that battle, and refuse to surrender.

Finishing and publishing this book is the first real productive thing I've done since retiring.  The intervening months has been a time of disillusion and struggle.  I've had to learn to redefine who I am, and to seek the fulfillment that I used to find in the simple task of going to work. In telling the tales of this small town tucked away in the Ozarks, I have begun to rediscover myself, and to discover a part of me that I always suspected was there, but never had the time to find out.

I earned the title of "writer" in the effort of writing newspaper columns.  But I always wanted to earn the more difficult title of "author."

Maybe, just maybe, I'm almost there.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Last Real Team

Eric Hosmer's mad...no, insane dash home
and what was the penultimate moment of the 2015 World Series.
© 2015 Newsday

Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey
Written content only.

It was magic.  There's no other way to describe that moment on a cool November night in New York City when Wade Davis blew a third strike past the buckling knees of the Mets' Wilmer Flores.  The Royals, after coming so close the year before, and coming so far from the previous 30 years, had been crowned baseball's World Champions.

To say that the win produced a cascade of celebration would be to labor in understatement.  While Kansas City rocked in joyous emotions, it was remarkable to observe that this midwestern metropolis wasn't the only place where the cheers could be heard.  This team, marked by such pluck, courage, and unity, had earned a following across the nation, and across the world.  Everyone remembers the Korean superfan and Seoul-mate Sungwoo Lee who expressed such a deep long distance ardor, that he was actually flown to Kansas City for a visit.  That summer, my wife and I were in France, and during that whole visit, my Royals cap inspired a host of smiles and spontaneous conversation from Parisians.  

It isn't hard to discover why that team was so popular.  Their youth, unity, that never-say-die attitude were all elements to that wide acclaim.  But I think the thing that really got to people was that these guys were having fun!  Baseball was still a game to them, and behind those infectious grins everyone could see the 9-year-old that still lived within.

2016 was a disappointment, but understandable.  Any team in any sport that parks five all-stars on the disabled list for extended periods of time is going to suffer.  But that passion never left them.  Alex Gordon's wrist certainly bothered him more than that titular Sgt. Rock would ever admit.  And close to the end of the season, it was painful to watch Lorenzo Cain try to swing a bat with one hand.  But through the swarm of injuries, that desire, that love of the game never wavered.  Even though they missed the playoffs, to Royals Nation, they were still our champions.

Change, as I've often remarked, is the only consistent thing in life. Even the game of baseball eventually becomes the cold, calculating business of baseball.  The economics of a small market team guarantees that the core group would not stay in Kansas City forever.  The days when a George Brett and a Frank White could reliably spend their entire playing career wearing the same uniform are pretty much gone.

Lorenzo Cain, Salvador Perez, Danny Duffy, Alcides Escobar, Eric Hosmer, Jarrod Dyson, and Mike Moustakas pretty much started their careers at about the same time.  Coming up through the minors, they played on the same teams, won championships along the way.  So when they got to the majors, they were bonded in a way very few baseball teammates have ever been.  In fact, they don't refer to themselves as mere teammates, but rather the more intimate "brothers." That closeness created a clubhouse culture that embraced equally everyone who wore the uniform. By their own earnest statements, there were no stars, in the usual sense.  Every one of them were equally valuable. In bonding with each other, they also bonded with the fans.  Kansas City fans are a breed apart, thinking of these players as family. That same relationship also exists with the players from the NFL franchise that works on the other end of the Truman Sports Complex. Players who have spent time here have many times commented on that special relationship.

When I ordered my Royals jersey, I was in a quandary as to which player I would honor.  In the end, I decided to honor them all.  On the back of my jersey, it says  "All 25."

But next year, 2018, looks like the end of this run.  Jarrod Dyson, a fan favorite, is already gone to Seattle.  Wade Davis, who closed games with the finality of a sarcophagus lid has also departed.  Greg Holland is in Denver.  And this is only the beginning.  In what is likely to cause the worst pain, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, and Eric Hosmer are likely to seek, and sign big deals with wealthier teams.  Eric Hosmer, even though some doubt his offensive numbers, would be a terrible loss.  He emerged as the clubhouse leader, the team whip-cracker, the go-to interview for the big networks, and the familiar public face this franchise has lacked since Mr. Brett retired.  As the Kansas City Star award-winning columnist (and the Hemingway of the prairies) Sam Mellinger has noted, if the Royals are not competitive at the trade deadline, the exodus could even predate the last part of the season. 

For fans, it would not be so much a departure as a divorce; it will hurt that much.  I was sad when Tony Gonzalez left the Chiefs.  But I understood why.  I will be sad when this incredible group begins to disintegrate.  But again, I will understand.  Not that it will ease my pain.

The career of a pro athlete is short.  One need only watch some of the stars of the 70's and 80's gimp around to understand why.  Athletes make careers out of playing through injuries, tearing their bodies up until very little remains.  Even though they make enormous sums of money (compared to most of us) that money is going to have to sustain them and their families for at least 50 years of their post-career lives, not to mention paying the medical bills for those accumulated and unhealed injuries.  Besides, one of the aspects of being in America is the right to be paid what the market will bear for your services.  We grumble about that, but come on.  Have we ever had 30,000 people pay money to watch us do our jobs?

Time moves ever forward, leaving behind memories both sad and sweet.  Such is the case with these Royals.  We were promised great things when this group matured, and that happened as predicted.  Two consecutive World Series, after three decades of very forgettable baseball. Honestly, however, we were all hoping they would stick around for a just a little while longer.

The future of this franchise is a bit unsure.  There are very good ballplayers waiting in the wings for their chance to step on that emerald green stage, but it will be different.  In fact, it won't ever be the same.

For those of us alive, awake, and aware, we were fortunate to be able to watch this group of brothers do something electrifyingly wonderful.  They created magic on the field and in our hearts.  For a brief, precious moment in time, we shared that magic and it changed our lives.  Their hard work and success brought pride and respect to Kansas City.  It was suddenly okay to wear the ballcaps, t-shirts, and jerseys, and not fear being laughed at, especially by those infuriating red-clad snobs from the Mississippi side of the state.  For us, those memories will forever be etched in our minds and hearts.  In our gray years, we will tell our wide-eyed grandchildren barely believable stories of a team that regularly snatched victory not just from the jaws of defeat, but sometimes even from its gastrointestinal tract.

It is said that those Royals rewrote the paradigm for Major League Baseball.  Usually the talk will be about the shut-down bullpen, or the death-by-a-thousand-cuts offense, or the hermetically-sealed defense.  But the paradigm that was really changed was in the basic concept of "team." It wasn't just a group of players who wore the same uniform, but a family of young men who were totally invested in each other; who understood and accepted that it could be a different hero every night, even someone like Christian Colon, who hadn't stepped in a batter's box for over a month, but would still deliver a scintillating base hit that changed our baseball world forever.

This was a very brief, but very special time for Kansas City and the world-wide legion of Royals fans.  Because of the nature of these players and the way they grew up together, it's not likely that such a time will ever happen again.  But it did. It happened in front of our eyes, giving us all a moment in time we will never forget.

We saw the magic; we felt the magic.  And we shared the love, 800,000 strong at the victory parade.  No matter how much time passes, none of us will ever forget this team, and the incredible ride upon which they took us.  

We will, in our conversations and recollections down the generations always honor this singular group of Kansas City Royals, not just as World Champions, but as the last pure and perfect team in the history of Major League Baseball.

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Challenge of the Final Frontier

NASA, Apollo 8

Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey
Written content only

Curiosity.  Wonder.  That persistent desire to know the unknown, to answer the unanswerable.  It is a fundamental part of our human makeup, whether a scientist or explorer, or any of the rest of us taking a stroll around a new neighborhood, visiting a new store, or shopping center;  perhaps vacationing to somewhere we've never been. However the desire manifests itself, it is a link, perhaps even a bond that connects people across culture, nation, and ideology.

From the first stirrings of conscience, humans have ever looked to the skies in wonder.  At first, the sky and its myriad points of light was populated with figures risen from imagination; omnipotent, angry creatures with unimaginable power who required unquestioned fealty and sacrifice in hopes of staving off their destructive revenge. Eventually, science replaced gods with objects, stars, galaxies, clouds of gas and dust, and now we know with certainty, other planets.

We don't yet know if there is life out there, although some of the exoplanets offer tantalizing possibilities.  Our current limitations of physics and the human lifespan keep them at a frustrating arm's length.

A host of galaxies from the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, Hubble Space Telescope

But perhaps that is not such a bad thing.  As a species, we insist on being at war with each other, whether the weapons are words or bullets.  Until we learn how to get along with each other, we have no business bothering anybody else. The stark reality is our refusal to let go of these conflicts means there is no common voice for the people of planet Earth.  Who among the contentious nations, cultures, or religions truly speaks for humanity?

So while the distant stars remain out of reach, we still live in a solar system full of unanswered questions.  What drives the 11-year cycle of our star?  Is Mercury worth the investment of time and resources to explore, or is it, as Spock would judge, "essentially,a great rock in space"?  What caused the runaway greenhouse effect on Venus, and could it be reversed?

Mars, ever the hopeful mystery.  Did it once harbor life?  Could it ever host life again, albeit transplanted life?  Could the failed planets of the asteroid belt hold resources that  could make life better here on Earth?  Are Jupiter and Saturn truly failed stars?  What are the dynamics fueling the massive weather systems in those atmospheres?  And what lies beneath all that gas?  And what about the dozens of moons orbiting those gas giants?  What surprises await us there?

Why does the ice giant, Uranus, alone of all the planets, roll around the sun on its side? What lies beneath those clouds, and those of its fellow ice giant, Neptune?

And what of poor, demoted Pluto?  Why is its orbit tilted compared to the rest of the sun's family?  With the recent visit of the New Horizons probe, Pluto has been transformed from a mysterious telescopic blob to an actual place, and an entirely new list of questions.

Beyond lies the Kuiper Belt, thought to be home to tens of thousands of other dwarf worlds, comets and asteroids.  Beyond even that is the hypothetical mass of billions of icy objects called the Oort Cloud that lies between one and two light years from the sun.  Is it there that the answers to questions about the formation of the solar system can finally be found?

Space Facts/Laurine Moreau

Clearly, there are enough mysteries in this local neighborhood to keep us occupied for at least a thousand years.  That is where we should focus our efforts.

The ever-growing clamor to visit the newly-discovered exoplanets is something that will have to wait, and not for the required global unity.  The fastest spacecraft yet built by humans would still take some 17,000 years to travel just one light year.  Since the closest planets with the highest possibility of life are around 20 light years distant, a manned journey of 340,000 years is simply out of the question.

Supposing for a moment that humanity decided to explore our solar system.  What kind of explorer would be required?

Such a person would have to be someone who would cheerfully forfeit a normal lifetime on Earth.  Such missions would require an absence of 10 to 20 years.  Their focus, energies, and enthusiasm would always be directed outwards, without the emotional baggage of homesickness.

They would have to be willing to divorce themselves from Earthbound concerns, to include politics, culture, and even religion.  The study of Earth sciences has become hopelessly infused with politics, either through association or funding.  There are no answers, or finding that can't be traced back to somebody's political agenda.  Since there are no Earth-like planets or objects in this star system, those studies are largely irrelevant, so those eternally conflicting arguments would have to be left behind.  Answers would thus be based on fact and evidence, not on ideology.

But it goes beyond politics.  These explorers would have to be of the mindset that they don't represent separate nations or cultures, but all humanity.  By the same token, the scientists back on Earth receiving that data and discoveries would need to be possessed of complete objectivity and devoid of political influence and ambition.  That, in itself, may be the most difficult barrier between the truth of what is, and the political fantasy of what is supposed to be.

Earth and the moon from Saturn. 

The technical challenges are daunting enough.  A spacecraft with a propulsion system which would either not require refueling, or would have a fueling resource to be visited from time to time.  Once outside Earth's protective magnetic field, the craft would have to be able to protect its fragile human cargo from deadly radiation and be able to absorb or deflect impacts of dust and rocks, that could hole the ship and cause the loss of its atmosphere.

Kerbal Space Program on Twitter

The ship would have to be large, not only to hold everything, but be able to provide at least a modicum of privacy and solitude for individual crew members.  To look at the Orion craft, essentially an upsized Apollo spacecraft, which is supposed to take astronauts on a several month long journey to Mars, one realizes that it had to be designed by someone with absolutely no grounding in the dynamics of human interaction.  In short, an engineer.


The equipment would require double or even triple redundancy, along with the facilities and materials to carry out complex repairs.

Of course, there are the obvious logistical needs of food, water, clean clothes, and a fully-equipped surgical sick bay, along with the physicians and nurses to run it.

The habitat portion of the ship would need to rotate, generating gravity that would prevent the loss of bone and muscle we already know occurs on long-duration missions.  In that space, would have to be ways for the crew to entertain themselves during their off duty hours.

There are hundreds, if not thousands of other requirements which I have neither education nor skills to anticipate.  But what I do possess is hope; hope that such hurdles can be overcome, that the right kind of ship could be built, manned by the right kind of people.  The we could truly "boldly go" into the deep waters of space, seeking and finding the answers to those as-yet unanswered questions.

It is the only way the human species can grow.  And survive.

Monday, March 06, 2017

"The Big Short" and The Curse of Earned Cynicism

The U.S. housing market in 2008.
(US Atomic Energy Commission/Department of Energy)

Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey
Written Content Only

Movies come out by the dozens every year, some good, most so-so, some which were not worth the effort.  But once in a while, a film is released that touches a nerve, opens some eyes, and changes the way the world is viewed.

For me, such was The Big Short, the cinematic treatment of Michael Lewis' book of the same name which recounted the factors leading up to the devastation of the U.S. housing market in 2008.  

Investment banking, in fact Wall Street in general is something of an esoteric field, rife with its own language purposefully designed to keep from the rest of us what is truly going on with the markets, and our money.  The story is one of shocking incompetence, willful blindness, collusion, and an absolute contempt for the welfare of the public at large.  If you haven't seen it, you should, if you have any kind of institutional retirement account.  Especially if you were one of the faceless millions who were financially raped in 2008.

I'll try to briefly summarize, but it is a complex subject and for full understanding, you need to read Lewis' book and then see the movie, several times.

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Finding Passion in Words of Freedom

From Monticello.org

Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey

Of the many things we Americans take for granted, at the top, or close to it, are what are called the founding documents, those incredible collections of wisdom that established our country, and to a large extent, have defined us as a people.  Not to date myself unnecessarily, but when I was in elementary and what used to be called junior high school, I was required -- required -- to read and study the three main documents, the Declaration of Independence, The Constitution of the United States, and the first ten amendments known as the Bill of Rights.  Before graduating high school, I had to take, and pass a civics test which covered among other things, those three documents.  The whole point of that exercise was to ensure that when I became age-eligible to vote, I fully understood how my government worked, and also the principles upon which it was built.

That kind of comprehensive learning is apparently not done in public schools today, which puzzles and saddens me.

Documents of any kind are at their root collections of words formed into sentences and arranged into paragraphs.  The end game is to communicate a specific message to the reader.  But words on a page do not by themselves communicate the emotion out of which such messages are crafted.  The second greatest speech ever given on U.S. soil, after the Gettysburg Address, was given by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Lincoln Memorial on a hot and steamy August 28, 1963 in Washington, DC.  Known as "I Have a Dream," it was a powerful cry from a people who, despite being citizens, had been systematically oppressed by the white majority.  Even a study of the text impresses the reader with its message.  But the most powerful element was Dr. King himself.  Drawing on his passion and the shared dreams of the tens of thousands gathered, he turned a speech into an epic tone poem.  The combination of the strength of those words and the power of his delivery created a riveting, and for America, a life-changing moment in our history.  Even today, I can't read that speech without hearing Dr. King in my head.

Such words and moments are borne out of the times in which they are crafted.  It was the same for the the crafters of our founding documents.  These were people who also felt repression; who also yearned for the freedom to determine their own destiny.  There is power in those words as well.  The problem is for the modern citizen, those statements are framed in a somewhat antiquated form of expression which, while clear and distinct at that time, tends to make understanding their full import today somewhat difficult.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Building Something New From the Rubble of the Past

Ultra Deep Field Image from the Hubble Space Telescope

Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey

I often find myself in idle contemplation of the universe.  Looking up on a clear night, I can see about 10,000 stars, each one demonstrating to me the finite and the infinite that lies beyond our tiny planet.  I think this is one of the common experiences of all humans, to look and wonder.

My interest has inspired an ongoing quest for knowledge about what lies Out There, and that knowledge has continually fed my imagination.  But in the contemplation of that universe, I have also been able to frame answers to some of my more earth-bound concerns.

The universe has no fixed reference point.  Everything is in motion, and the only accurate thing we can measure is how far we are from a certain object, and how fast we are approaching or receding.  For people whose life is a constant measure of movement to or from a point in space or time, this is truly a difficult thing to understand.  For example, in the time it takes for earth to complete one orbit of the sun, the solar system, which is also in motion, has traveled about 24 billion miles through space.  When we take two weeks off from work and do the "stay-cation," we actually have traveled some 910 million miles.  Too bad we can't get frequent flyer credits for that.

But the universe, and all the objects within, is not in a static condition.  It's not just that stars and galaxies are in motion, they are constantly changing.  With an inexpensive telescope, one can point it at the constellation of Orion the Hunter and see in the "sword" portion of that group a place that glows in molecular gases.  

Within the dark cloud of the well-known Horsehead Nebula, gas and dust is being compressed and heated.  Eventually, stars will form here.  If you had the patience, and the lifespan, to watch this cloud, you would be witness to stellar creation.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Hiking, Part 43

Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey
Words and pictures

Today, in our fifth week as Coloradans, we took to the trails to take our first hike since moving here in January.  For the last three weeks, I had been industriously walking the concrete paths (I won't call it a trail unless it consists of dirt, rocks, and roots) around the southern part of Aurora.  I have been working my way up in distance, and am now doing 8 miles at a stretch.  The point of that being to get my lungs and legs ready to tackle the trails that course through the front range foothills, and eventually, the Rockies themselves.

The biggest challenge has been adjusting to the altitude.  I have to keep reminding myself that the tallest peaks I climbed in Virginia are still 2,000 feet lower than the feet of the mountains we see here.  We have been asking people how long it takes to get acclimated, and get answers ranging from three months to three years.  And I believe that.  Even the simple act of climbing stairs still leaves us a bit breathless.  Where the strain shows is in tackling inclines.  Walking on flat ground is not terribly taxing, but let that path start to ascend, and immediately the lungs begin to work desperately hard to pull what little breathable oxygen exists in this huge sky.

Today was Cheryl's day off, and we decided to attempt our first dirt hike.  Our daughter recommended the William F. Hayden Green Mountain Park, a 2,400 acre expanse on the western edge of the Denver 'burb of Lakewood.  When you get out of the car, you're standing at about 6,050 feet altitude.  The summit at the top of the park is 6,800 feet.  On the Appalachian Trail in Virginia, a 750-foot ascent is just part of the hike.  The highest peak I attempted there was Hogback Mountain at just under 3,500 feet.  I remember that day, and how tired and sore I was at the end of that particular trek.  So, by that measure, a mere 750 feet should pose no problems, right?

Thursday, February 09, 2017

The Mess of Role Reversal

Chicken Parmesan....

...and Italian-Style Meat Loaf
Picture credits?  Not sure, but 
they're all better at cooking than I am.
Why is it mine never look this good?

Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey
Written content only.

It's called "role reversal," that part of human interaction where two people (usually married) at some point trade jobs.  In our case, my retirement freed up a lot of time that normally would have spent working productively at a job.  Cheryl, because of the economics of her retirement, still works, something she reminds of each and every day.  Because of that, it became necessary for me to undertake a new set of expectational chores.

I'm not a Neanderthal, by the way.  I do laundry, fold n' iron, make the bed, and attend to various other household chores, and have been doing this for most of my adult life.  Most of the time, without being told...er...reminded.  Now I have been asked to undertake the task of providing sustenance for the evening meal.

Cooking, for me, has always been a mystery.  When the kids were smaller, I did my duty on the nights when Cheryl was stuck at the hospital, which usually involved some form of hamburger helper, or something frozen from Sam's Club.  Attempting creativity was, shall we say, not greeted with anything approaching enthusiasm.  In fact, once our oldest got his driver's license, Chef Dad nights became for them Chez McDonald's.

As the years rolled on, it became apparent that cooking was just something beyond my ken.  I stuck to those things I knew I could execute, french toast, eggs over easy, omelettes, and anything microwavable.  Some of the manufacturers, in a stroke of genius, came out with those "meal in a bag" items.  I loved this.  Didn't have to add, mix, measure, or guess.  Just unbag it, put it in the oven or pot of boiling water, and within 20 minutes -- Voila! -- a tasty, (mostly) nutritious meal.  More importantly, the end product actually looked like the picture on the bag.  As long as you didn't look to closely.  

Saturday, February 04, 2017

They STILL Say the Darndest Things

Ian Couey
Photo © 2017 by Yukyung Couey

Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey
Written content only.

"We can waste a lifetime 
of study and contemplation
 pursuing the truth of life, 
when all we really ever had to do 
was ask our five-year-old."
--R. F. Couey

Last month, in my farewell address to my colleagues, I encouraged them that while they were navigating the maelstrom that spins through their lives, to be alert for those marvelous moments of the now.  It can be too easy that while we are fully focused on the "have-to-do's" and "gotta-be-there's" that crowd our schedules that we can become unaware of those moments when they occur.  Those magical snippets can become golden memories.

Art Linkletter had a television show in the 1960's called, "Kids Say the Darndest Things."  The format was delightfully simple.  Art sat down with some kids, what today would be called a panel, and asked them questions.  The wonderful attraction to the program was the delightful and incredible things that came out of the mouths of those babes.  Young children are very prone to saying what is exactly on their mind, lacking, or perhaps ignoring, the social filters that keep such utterances from adults locked firmly inside.  As they grow older, they become, in a way, more cynical and less frank, and of course, much less entertaining.

Our grandson Ian just turned six years old, and has always been a reliably hilarious source of such gems.  He is very intelligent (yeah, yeah, I know.  ALL grandparents say that.), but in the last couple years has revealed a real sense of humor.  And a very contagious laugh.

Ian's Mom and Dad began writing these things down for posterity, something we have come to call "Ian-isms."  While this is the kind of thing parents normally save for when they meet the boy's first girlfriend, they are truly amazing, and reflect his active mind.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Getting in Rythm

Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey
Words and Pictures

We humans are creatures of habit.  A regular routine helps keep us sane, giving each day a slightly different cast, but still managing to help us march through the calendar.  We look at our weeks and know that certain things happen on certain days and times.  For most of us, our jobs and those related activities occupy Mondays through Fridays.  Weekends, for parents, are driven by the schedules of the kids, i.e. baseball, football, basketball, gymnastics, and the seemingly never-ending soccer season.  For some, Sunday means church followed by an afternoon either watching or playing sports, or just taking a snooze on the couch.  This makes our days fairly predictable, if frenetic.  As I have discovered, there is safety in that routine.

Schedules, whether we like them or not, run our lives, and when there is a major change to that routine, we are left adrift; confused and gasping for air.

One of the things I have had to get used to, now in my third week of retirement, is learning how to live a life mostly bereft of scheduled obligations.  I used to work Wednesdays through Saturdays, and upon waking up on these three Wednesdays, my first thought was if I had ironed a shirt for work. Then realizing that was no longer necessary.  For decades, I lived my live in suits, ties, and slacks.  Now, it's mainly jeans.  We're still sorting out boxes here in my daughter's house, so I guess you could say I still have a job, albeit a different one.

The really fun thing we've discovered is the freedom we have to go do things without consulting our smartphone calendars.  This week, on a whim, we drove up to Breckenridge, Colorado for a day...just because.  We walked around town, did some shopping, some eating, spent the night and drove home the next day through a driving snowstorm.  Today, we were passing a theater, and decided to go see a movie.  Just like that.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Birds, Brains, and Beauty

From Crafthub.com

Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F, Couey
Written content only

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

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

Thursday, January 12, 2017

From the Other Side

From Pinterest.com

by Ralph F. Couey

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Post Number 600

Copyright © 2016
by Ralph F. Couey

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Great Upheaval

Copyright © 2016
By Ralph F. Couey

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Age and the Betrayal by the Mind

From University College London Brain Sciences

Copyright © 2016
By Ralph F. Couey

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Preparing for the Final Frontier

Alpha Centauri A and B

Proxima is inside the red circle

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

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

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