About Me

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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 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.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

An Evening at Kooser*

The Lake

The path through the forest

*Somerset, PA Daily American
September 4, 2010
as "Enjoying Local Scenery"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

We often become blind to the things we see everyday, familiarity turning them into a sort of wallpaper to us; always there, but rarely noticed.

We’ve lived in the Laurel Highlands for 6 years now, the last 5 in Somerset. Upon coming here, my attention was grabbed by the things that marked significant events in the region’s past, like the Johnstown Flood Memorial and Monument and the Quecreek Mine Disaster site. My involvement with the Friends of Flight 93 group has made that cause, and those wonderful, dedicated people a big part of our lives. And yet, there are things I now realize I’ve completely missed.

Part of the pattern of our lives involves taking an evening walk with our dog, Tweeter. Somerset is a nice place to walk in the evenings. The sun is going down, and the day has moved into that long, purple twilight. Other people are walking as well, and folks come out on their porches to enjoy the cool air. It’s a quiet, peaceful time; a time when the stresses of the day are allowed to flow freely away.

And yet, walking the same blocks year after year, part of me yearns for an occasional change of scenery.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Simple Pleasures in a Complicated World*

Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
September 19, 2010
as "Enjoying the Simple Things"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

We live in a complicated world, leading complicated lives, complicated by complicated events complicating our already complicated lives. Mired in such a complicated environment, the simple pleasures become even more pleasurable.

You know what I mean. Those activities that bequeath us those precious moments when we feel like life has taken us tenderly in its grasp and holds us close, warm, protected…and loved. We feel happy and content. And, for a few moments anyway, we can set aside a world that at times feels as if it’s spinning out of control, taking us, unwillingly, along for the ride.

There are some who do gardening. I heard a lady say once, “Yes, it’s hard work at times. But all that goes away when I can see that through planting and caring for a flower, I’ve brought life and color to a bare patch of dirt. Every morning after that, I can look out my window, see that flower and know that I made a difference.”

Our pets can bring us those moments, sharing their simple and unconditional love, especially that moment when we come through the door after a particularly bad day to be “embraced” with boundless joy by a simple being whose just delighted that we’re home. Walking the dog is another simple joy. It gets us out of the house and into the sunshine. We see and talk to our neighbors, while the fluffball gets the exercise, we enjoy the peace and solace of a summer’s evening.

Monday, August 23, 2010

My Weather Rant: Raving Thoughts From a Humidified Mind*

*Somerset, PA Daily American
August 28, 2010
as "Another Snowpocalypse?"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

I really like living here in the mountains. This is something that is far easier to state in August than February. Especially last February. The truth is, even as warm and uncomfortably muggy as this summer has been, it’s still a whole lot better than other places.

A couple of weeks ago, when things were really bad around here (“bad” being a purely subjective term), I was complaining about how uncomfortable it was in the house at night. All the windows were open, fans were blowing, but it still felt like Tampa.

Now we do have window air conditioners. Three, in fact. But they’re up in the attic and to be truthful, I’ve not been uncomfortable enough to motivate me to hump them down two long flights of stairs and install them. In previous summers (or at least the six we’ve been here) there just wasn’t any need. There were maybe two or three really uncomfortable days out of the whole summer, and it just didn’t seem worth all that work.

This year, its not been two or three days, it’s been two or three months of warm, sticky weather, the kind of icky air that caused us to flee Missouri and never look back. Speaking of the Show-Me State, on that day that I was griping, the heat index in St. Louis topped 115 degrees. Compared to them, this was arctic.

I’ve heard that the steady flow of moisture into the region that gave us that very forgettable winter is still in place, which is why its been so muggy. So, we have to ask ourselves if this winter, are we in for another snowpocalypse?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Really Rapid Transit*

MagLev Bullet Train in China
Yeah.  They did.

That's 267 miles per hour.

*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
October 10, 2010
as "Basic Train-ing a Joy"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey
Written content only

Last year, I took a train ride to New York City. The trip was…well you might call it a transportational epiphany. Looking for an alternative to air travel, I discovered, or perhaps re-discovered a far more enjoyable way to travel.

Since then, I’ve taken a couple of shorter junkets, and joined the good people of Rockwood as they celebrated the possibility of a Amtrak stop in their small town. From there, you can be in Washington DC in about 3 hours, or roughly the same amount of time it takes to drive.

On Saturday, The History Channel ran a program on high-speed rail that captured my attention.

For an hour, images of lightning-fast trains flashed across the screen. I learned that Japan has a thousand miles of rail lines exclusively for their Bullet Trains. In Europe, France and Germany both have similar fast trains, and are looking at a MagLev, or magnetic levitation train, which would rocket across the countryside at speeds over 300 mph. Even China, a nation most westerners consider primitive, has high-speed rail lines, and is building more.

But despite their high speeds, the trains have a proven safety record. In all those countries that run these trains, there has never been a single fatality. And some have been running regular schedules since the ‘80s.

So, I’m wondering, why don’t we have them here?

Other than the Acela that runs between Washington DC, Boston and New York City, there aren’t any American high-speed rail lines anywhere.

It’s no revelation how bad air travel has become. Airports are crowded, aircraft are stuffed tight, and aircrews and passengers are rude to each other, and airlines are hostile to luggage. If a customer had the option of taking a high-speed train from, say, Pittsburgh to Chicago without the hassles of airport security, weather delays, over-worked aircrews, wait times in the terminals and on the taxiways, long, long walks from arrival gates to ground transportation, and waits for luggage (when it arrives at all), who wouldn’t consider it? Imagine riding on a 200-mph train in comfortable seats with legroom, Wi-Fi, space to work, outlets for your electronics, plus being able to use your cell phone while traveling. This will pose a serious marketing problem for the purveyors of the now-hostile skies.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Speech: On the Occasion of the Sunsetting of the Flight 93 Memorial Task Force

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

Almost nine years ago, on a bright and beautiful September morning,
the world was changed;
our nation was changed;
we were changed.

It was a day of dark tragedy and destruction. And yet, in the midst of that darkness, a great light emerged. We, the people of the United States, had found our unity. For a few, brief, precious moments in time, our political differences vanished; we stood shoulder to shoulder; arm in arm. We spoke with one voice.

We felt with one heart.

Aboard United Airlines flight 93, a group of strangers also found unity; a unity of purpose. Knowing the risk, they stood together as one and fought back. And by all accounts, they almost succeeded.

The spot of earth where their plane fell almost immediately became a place of honor and pilgrimage, not only for Americans, but people from across the globe.

The Flight 93 Temporary Memorial was thus born, a purely spontaneous expression of sympathy and empathy. This memorial commemorates people from the common walk of life. They might have been strangers we brushed past on the street; neighbors from next door, or perhaps friends. Because of that, people have connected with the passengers and crew in a very personal way. I think all of us now realize that a hero is not always someone famous who walks the halls of power, but more often an ordinary person who saw a task that was greater than their fear.

Research Papers: Taming the Beast

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

Research paper, term paper, thesis, dissertation, whatever term is used, it still describes the universal nightmare of just about everyone who ever sat in a classroom. The idea of this drawn-out, tortuous, labor intensive monster lurking on the academic doorstep is enough to deliver a host of sleepless nights. There are few words in the student lexicon that strike more fear into the heart.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. There is a systematic way to approach such a project that will make things less complicated and generate a quality paper.

Notice that I didn’t use the word “easy.” No matter how logical the process, a research paper is still hard work. And surprise, surprise, it’s supposed to be that way.

Language is the means by which humans convey messages and ideas. It has rules that must be obeyed. In every culture, the basic language gets altered (some would say “polluted”) by the use of slang.

The e-culture we find ourselves in today has rendered that distortion even further with the introduction of abbreviations arising out of instant messaging, and cell phone texting. When you write a paper, you need to omit slang. Slang. While it is colorful and fun, colloquial expression is inexact and certain words can have regional variations, the use of which can leave your audience completely baffled. I have a friend who is the editorial page editor of a newspaper. He moans often about the state of writing contained in the “letters to the editor” that end up in his inbox. Often, he says, “I have to send the letter or email back and ask for the writer to translate.”

As you do your research, spend some time studying the style of academic writing. Look at how sentences are constructed; how words are used. See how paragraphs are organized into ideas and how the paragraphs are knit together to craft the writer’s point of view. Yes, academic writing can be very boring to read, but that’s done on purpose. The ideas brought forth have to stand on their own merits, and not given false fronts by using emotional or excessively superlative words. If you can’t make those ideas stand on the strength of your research, then you either need more research, or a different set of ideas.

If you are able to write seriously, you will be taken seriously. If you don’t, you’ll be laughed at.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Choosing...Or Not

Suzuki GS550T


Honda PC800

Kawasaki Vulcan 900LT

Soooo many bikes, soooo little time...

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

Like any guy, I like to look at machines. My eleven years with Caterpillar has left me with a special appreciation for those big, brawny yellow tractors. A child of the ‘60s, I also have a soft spot for carefully restored automotive denizens from that era. A couple of months ago, I came across a pristine 1967 Corvette Sting Ray, my personal favorite, in a parking lot. I stayed there for a good 30 minutes, walking around, peering through the windows, drinking in the incredibly powerful, yet graceful lines. I couldn’t tear myself away; the owner showed up and drove away, favoring me with an understanding look. Once I got home, my wife wanted to know what took me so long. I mumbled something about traffic and long checkout lines. Somehow, I just knew she wouldn’t understand.

Even though I own a perfectly good motorcycle, that doesn’t deter me from surfing websites, checking out what else is for sale. I freely admit to a serious case of E-bay Envy.

I’ve always been a long-distance rider, preferring touring or sport-touring bikes. Now, I’ve bought my first cruiser. (Actually, my second. I dumped the first one.) It is such a different look than what I was used to. Sport-tourers are narrow and sleek. They seem to want to fly even when parked. A cruiser is entirely different; big and beefy, it’s voice a manly, hairy-chested roar when accelerating. At rest, it rumbles like a barely-stable volcano. The chrome catches the sunlight with a special gleam, those random rays of light that warm the soul of a man.

Life: It's Chapters and Verses*

Teacher, Adventurer, Sailor, Mom

In younger days,
Mom, Adventurer, Sailor, Teacher

*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
September 5, 2010
as "In Book of Life, You Can't Read Last Chapter First"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

A life seems very much like a book, each chapter a clearly definable segment of the journey we’ve taken.

The chapters of our child-rearing years are closed. Our adult offspring are scattered across the landscape like so many autumn leaves. This is to be expected. Coueys are sojourners by nature, afflicted with that stubborn gene which causes restlessness, itchy feet, and a yearning for far horizons.

Visits are infrequent and all too short. Grandchildren have been born, deepening the sense of separation. We do occasionally see one or two, but those moments when we all gather are rare indeed.

Children grow into adults; everybody knows this. And yet, parents still see them as kids. But there are those jarring moments when we suddenly realize that they’re adults.

Our son is a Navy Chief Petty Officer, a third-generation sailor, and a second-generation Chief. Intellectually, I know this. But seeing him in that khaki uniform for the first time was still a shock. The real jolt came a year later

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Riding and Risk*

*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
August 15, 2010
as "Motorcycles Can Be Risky Rides"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

A couple of years ago I discovered a neat tool, part of the Google universe, called “Google Alerts.” You designate key words and an email address, and Google then searches the ‘Net 24/7 for results. As the backbone of my job is research, this has made things easier to find those needed snippets of information. Most of my alerts are work-related, but some of them are there just for fun.

One alert I titled simply “motorcycle.” My intent was to keep up to date on new developments in the industry as well as finding about motorcycle events around the nation.

However, as a by-product of that search I also get news reports of accidents as well.

I read these, not out of a prurient or morbid interest, but as a way to learn more about safe riding. Surprisingly, in these reports, it seems that most of these accidents involve factors that are in the control of the rider.

These are a representative sample:

In Clearwater, Florida, a car pulled out of a driveway on one side of a street at the same time a motorcycle pulled out from a driveway across the road, turning in the opposite direction. The two collided, the rider taken to the hospital.

Near Sacramento, California, a group of sport riders were practicing stunts on the streets of an undeveloped subdivision. One rider, after completing a trick made a sharp U-turn, turning into the path of another bike. The two collided, killing the rider of the second bike. Said one of the witnesses, "Each one of us... We got a real reality hit. We gotta think twice about everything. I told myself: I'm not riding anymore. Physically can't. Mentally can't."

Friday, August 13, 2010

A Tale of Two Cities, Two Rallys*

*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
August 21, 2010
as "A Tale of Two Cities' Biker Rallies"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

From August 3-8, the city of Columbia, Missouri, home to the University of Missouri, hosted the National Bikers Roundup. This is a traveling rally that annually attracts thousands of bikers. Last year’s rally, held in Atlanta, attracted around 85,000. The expected attendance at this Mid-Missouri metropolis was expected to be 35,000.

The Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau’s executive director, Lorah Steiner, termed it “…one of the single largest events we have ever brought to the city in a concentrated period of time.” The reaction to the rally locally was apocalyptic. Even the publisher of the local paper admitted to “…a certain amount of community angst.”

We lived in Columbia for 14 years, so it was with interest that I followed the reportage via the Internet. Reader comments complained in advance about the traffic, the possible damage to the fairgrounds, the noise, an influx of drugs, guns, and other crime. When rally organizers contracted a private firm to provide security, the County Sheriff demanded that they be trained and certified. He said, “I’m not going to put two to four deputies inside an area where there’s 30,000 people unless there are additional security, medical and emergency service personnel available. This is a huge event. I don’t think people understand how big it is.”

The impending guests were called hoodlums, and compared to Marlon Brando’s “The Wild Ones.” One reader commented, “No good will come of this.”

To be fair, there was support for the rally amongst those same comments, but the general mood seemed like the city was hunkering down for an armed invasion.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Stalking Tiger*

*Somerset, PA Daily American
August 14, 2010
as "Tiger Observations"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

Once upon a time, there was a Tiger. He prowled open spaces of emerald green grass, striking fear into all those who opposed him. He was so powerful that millions came to his territory, just to watch him crush his competition. At his peak, he was all-powerful, without equal; his rule over the grasslands, some said, would never end.

Then one day, the Tiger came face-to-face with the only foe that ever beat him. The face of that foe was in the mirror. The Tiger’s vanquisher proved to be the Tiger himself.

We have become jaded to stories of stars who have self-destructed. However, the most shocking story of a fall from public grace belongs to professional golfer Tiger Woods.

He always seemed to be marked for greatness. At 3 years old, he shot 48 for nine holes. He won the Optimist International Junior Championships six times. He was the youngest U.S. Junior Amateur Champion in history at 15. At 18, he was the youngest U.S. Amateur Champion ever. As an amateur at the 1995 Masters, he tied for 41st. When he turned pro in August 1996 at the age of 20, he played in 8 events, won two, and earned over $800,000, mere pocket change with $60 million in endorsement deals already in his hip pocket.

Monday, August 02, 2010

It's Never "Just a Ride"*

*Somerset, PA Daily American
August 21, 2010
as "Reasons to Ride"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

The passion for riding motorcycles is as much a spiritual thing as it is psychological. A motorcycle is often referred to as “the cheapest form of therapy” by those who have given in to that special kind of seduction. But there’s a lot of truth to that statement. Most riders treasure their rides; the best escape from the sometimes crushing pressures of daily life. Part of that has to do with the concentration required while in the saddle.

There is an inherent risk to motorcycling. Traffic, road surfaces, debris, animals, changing weather, and texting drivers are all part and parcel of the danger that surrounds us. When on the road, you can’t simmer over a bad workday, or plan the weekend construction project. Thoughts of relationships, bills, schedules, or chores have no place in the rider’s head. There’s just too much going on around to allow distractions of any kind.

The uninitiated might opine, “If that’s the case, then why ride at all?”

Listen carefully, Grasshopper.

There is a side benefit of being hyper-aware of the world around. You notice things of which you would otherwise be blinded. The breeze blowing past carries with it the scents of flowers, earth, and fresh air. The bright sunshine warms the shoulders. Above, the dome of a blue sky marks not a ceiling, but the gateway to the infinite. Rumbling along, you feel the texture of the road coming up through the handlebars and footpegs. You catch glimpses of forests, their interiors dappled with sun and leaves; fields and meadows full of grass gently swaying with the touch of the breeze. As the road rises and falls, turns and twists, you and the bike are one, feeling the rhythm of the landscape. All five senses are alive, and nature gently touches that secret poet within us all.

Yes, it is poetry; but not of words, phrases and stanzas. Rather, it’s the rhyme of senses and feelings soaring in a synchronous dance.