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.

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Journey*


*Somerset, PA Daily American
October 30, 2010
as "It's About the Journey"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

We humans are explorers, driven by our curiosity. The irresistible desire for knowledge and the thirst for experience drives us beyond ourselves, striving to make the unknown known, whether scaling a mountain, or a simple stroll around a new neighborhood.I’ve never been one to stay put. The desire to travel springs from the restlessness I feel. To stay in one place is to put down roots. I have no desire for roots, for I yearn to roam. In the open road and the perfect sky, I hear the siren song of freedom.

There’s a horizon out there.

On the far side are things I’ve never seen, places I’ve never been, people I’ve never met, experiences I’ve never had. To seek the horizon and all that lies beyond is to free the spirit and uncage the soul. To some, a horizon is a boundary, a rampart separating the risky and unknown from the safe and familiar. For me, the horizon is a gateway; the inviting door through which beckons the seductive hand of adventure and discovery.

Indulging my inner explorer, I have sought the horizon and all that lies beyond. I have stood in wonder before the multitudinous works of man; I have knelt in awe before the creative majesty of God, finding peace in a thousand moments from the beauty of a desert sunset, to the quiet joy of a grandchild's embrace.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Culture of a Furnace*

*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
November 20, 2010
as "Steam Heat Takes Some Warming Up To"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

I grew up in the Midwest, Missouri specifically. Out there, temperature extremes are much broader than here in the delightfully temperate Laurel Highlands. Summers are hot and humid. It’s not unusual at all to have a week to ten days of 100+ degree heat, accompanied by humidity that has to be felt to be believed. At the other end of the spectrum, winter will bring the same week to ten days of below-zero cold.

This vast disparity in seasonal temperatures places a heavy load on climate control devices. Nearly everyone in Missouri has a forced-air furnace. Some of the more well-heeled will have a heat pump, the crème de la crème of home HVAC. Moving to Pennsylvania, however, I encountered a real culture shock: Steam heat

You must understand that I had never lived in a house with steam heat. I remember standing in the basement under a maze of pipes with the former owner while he patiently explained how everything worked.

The first thing I had to understand was proper pronunciation . I thought they were RAY-diators, so named because they RAY-diated heat. Not here. I quickly discovered that the proper way to say the word is RAT-iators. No one knows why the word is used this way; probably the same reason one of the bodies of water that flows through downtown is the Stoney-CRICK.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Halloween Traditions*

*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
October 29, 2010
as "Carving Into Halloween History"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

I was thinking the other day about the upcoming observation of Halloween and remembering the traditions that are associated with this end of October event. Parties, pumpkin carving, costumes, and trick-or-treating, and of course, the haul of candy that kept me in a sustained sugar high for days afterwards. These were all  memories cast in the warm glow of childhood innocence.

But I became curious. Where did these traditions come from? What were their original purposes?

Halloween (or Hallowe’en) is a combination of the Celtic festival “Samhain” (“Summer’s End”) and the Christian holiday of All Saints Day. The name itself comes from Scotland of the 16th century and is a shortened version of “All Hallows Even.”

The Celts celebrated the festival as the end of the “Lighter Half” and the beginning of the “Darker Half” of the year and is sometimes called the Celtic New Year. They believed that on Samhain, the border between this life and the next became thin enough to allow spirits to pass through. Traditions welcomed family ancestors while warding off the evil spirits. The wearing of costumes, usually depicting one of the evil ones, was a disguise to protect one from the evil spirits by pretending to be one of them.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The "R" Word*

 *Somerset, PA Daily American
November 6, 2010
as "Working on 'The Plan'"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

I’ve always thought of myself as being young at heart. Even at 55, I never really think of myself as being “old.” Old is always someone with more years than I. I suppose that’s a form of relativistic rationalization, but hey; it keeps me warm at night.

Earlier this year, my wife started to mention the “R” word. And she wanted to talk about it. In the dream-like existence I exist in, such conversation was vastly premature. I won’t be eligible for the pasture until 67, twelve long years from now. Plus, I love my day job and have a genuine passion for the work. My freelance writing is beginning to get a tiny bit of traction. I’m just now hitting my stride and have no interest in contemplating the end of my career.

When she first asked my when I was planning to retire, I thought for a moment and replied, “When the Coroner calls and says they pulled my body out from behind my desk, you’ll know I’ve retired.” Instead of the expected chuckle, all I got was stony silence.

Sometimes, she really has no sense of humor.

Though being the free spirit in this family, I realize that the future is flying at us at breakneck speed, and we have to be ready, lest we end up living in a piano box and eating cat food.

Fall Riding: Joys and Risks


Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

Fall is a joyous time of year for riding. For a few short weeks, our favorite roads become tunnels of riotous color, the sunlight providing a marvelous glow to the trees. The milky humidity-filled skies have cleared to a perfect cobalt blue and the air has lost its heavy summer feel to a cool freshness that engages the senses and enlivens the soul.

But in this beauty is an increased amount of risk for riders. This is the time of year when riders begin to disappear from the streets and highways. Because you are now a rarer sight, drivers will be less inclined to take notice of you. During the summer, humidity tends to soften the sunlight. But in the fall, the humidity disappears, leaving the air perfectly clear. This means that for anyone facing the sun, now at a lower angle in the sky, the light will be very bright, even blinding. Remember this, especially when you ride with the sun to your back. People coming towards you will be dazzled by the light and you will be very likely invisible to them, especially when it’s time for them to turn left across your path. Riding with your high beam on just may give you a little more visibility.

The fall storms drop rain and bring strong winds, blowing foliage off the trees. Remember that wet leaves are very slick and in the cool air, roads will take longer to dry. And as you ride down into deep valleys, there just might be a bit of ice or frost on the pavement, especially in the morning.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Autism and the Verdict of the Public Jury*


*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
October 24, 2010
as "No Fault in Autism"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

I’m sure you’ve seen one. Maybe at the Galleria, a restaurant, or some other public place. A small child who yells, screams, or maybe collapses into a full-blown melt-down.

Do you remember your thoughts? Frustration, annoyance, judgmentalism. Perhaps you became angry enough to say something warm and supportive, like, “Can’t you control your kid?”

Chances are what you witnessed was not bad parenting or a lack of discipline, but one of a growing number of children afflicted with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

In the last 20 years, occurrence rates for Autism have increased rapidly. The latest round of statistics from the Centers for Disease Control shows that Autism is now the third most common developmental disability. It happens in 1 out of 110 births, more often than MS, Cystic Fibrosis, and childhood cancer, and seems to be increasing by as much as 17% per year.

The Autism Society of America defines Autism as “A neurological disorder that affects the functioning of the brain, impacting development in the areas of social interaction and communication.” Its cause is still a mystery, but growing evidence points to genetic disorders, particularly chromosome abnormalities such as deletion, duplication, and inversion. For a while, there was thought to be a connection to childhood vaccinations, mainly because that was about the age when the symptoms began to appear. However, recent scientific studies have completely discredited the connection.

The three hallmarks of Autism area:

The Days and Nights of Glitter Gulch*

Fremont Street

The Strip

"Oooh!  Aaah!"
Jaden drinks it all in.

*Somerset, PA Daily American
October 23, 2010
as "The Lights of Las Vegas"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

My wife’s family lives in Hawaii, and in case you ever wondered where people who live in paradise go for vacation, it’s Vegas. Every year around my mother-in-law’s birthday, the family gathers at America’s playground. Most times we go also, when the two elements of vacation time and available cash intersect.

Vegas, as you might expect, has an aura all its own. Even in the current tough economic climate (their unemployment rate hovers around 16%), the city works hard to keep its trademark diamond-studded smile. But behind the bright lights and glitter on the strip are the dark windows of too many empty rooms.

At the north end of Las Vegas Boulevard, the old downtown hotels are doing well. Our hotel, the California, was so busy that even arriving after midnight, we still had to wait two hours before our room was ready.

The downtown crowd is a mix of young folks, seeking the less-expensive rates, and the older folks who still listen to Dean, Sammy, and Frank while remembering the good old days when the brilliant neon on Fremont Street bequeathed its permanent nickname, “Glitter Gulch.”

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Folly of Borrowing Traditions*

*Somerset, PA Daily American
November 27, 2010
as "Creating Traditions"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

Holiday traditions are a part of every family’s history, many going back multiple generations. They grow out of the magic that happens when family gathers. But one thing I’ve learned is that you can’t adopt someone else’s traditions. You have to create them yourselves.

My wife’s family usually gets together before Thanksgiving to make pies. This is not your usual baking of two or three pies for the holiday feast. They go into mass-production mode, usually turning out in excess of 350 pies, which they then give away to family, friends, coworkers, and occasionally, perfect strangers. It’s an amazing thing to watch as my mother-in-law and two daughters work swiftly, happily, and with supreme organization in a small, stuffy non air-conditioned Honolulu kitchen. They make pumpkin and apple pies, all of them delicious. Seeing them work, my son and wife decided to export this island tradition to his spacious climate-controlled kitchen in Maryland.

The week before, we were tasked with locating and buying a certain brand of pie filling here in Pennsylvania. My son usually clears the shelves of every grocery store in his area, so it was necessary for us to patch in the remainder of the supply. Having obtained our quota of cases, we loaded the car and headed east. It was a joyful arrival, although humping all those groceries up the stairs did take some of the shine off that particular apple. That evening, we all pitched in to make the crust. Immediately, we ran into difficulties. What the Hawaii experts had made look so easy became a job fraught with exasperation and frustration. The dough kept sticking to the rolling pin, even with generous amounts of flour, tearing holes in the sheets. Cutting and lifting the crusts into the pie pans was even more difficult, eventually leading to a frantic trans-pacific phone call to find out how to get the dough from table to pan in one piece. Finally, about 1 AM, tired, frustrated, and looking like floury Yetis, we retired.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Freedom, The Constitution, and The Vote*

*Somerset, PA Daily American
October 16, 2010
as "The Right to Vote"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

On July 4, 1776 a group of British ex-patriots declared to the world the intent to become a sovereign nation. Twenty-one years later, after a year of vigorous debate and hard work, a remarkable document emerged, one of the most profound, influential, and far-reaching of any since the Magna Carta.

The Constitution of the United States embodies the supreme law of the United States. It was a model of a citizen-led government, the meaning, focus, and intent proudly stated at the top of the page: “We the People.” Over the 221 years since ratification, 27 amendments have been added to the original document, the most crucial of those being the Bill of Rights.

One of the most precious and vigorously guarded rights of our citizenry is the right to vote. But that particular right is not enumerated in the original Constitution or the Bill of Rights. In fact, it isn’t specifically addressed until Amendments 15, 19, 24, and 26. This nation operated on a system of free elections for 100 years without a Constitutional mandate. Granted, at first only free white male landowners were allowed to cast ballots, but over the years, restrictions on race, class, and wealth were removed. Today, any citizen of the United States, who hasn’t been convicted of a felony, is allowed to register and vote in any election, whether federal, state, or local.

The power of the popular vote has shaped our history. Significant changes in the philosophy and direction of the United States have been ordered through elections. While control of the congress by one party existed for some 40 years in the 20th century, since 1994 that control has shifted at least three times, on two of those occasions, granting the controlling party significant majorities in both houses. And by all accounts, the next two may also result in sweeping changes.

Friday, October 01, 2010

The Folly of Man* (or Why I'm Not Playing Football This Year)

*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
October 17, 2010
as "Athletes Face One Foe They'll Never Beat: Age"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

In youth, man is brash, confident, full of inexhaustible energy, and consumed by an undaunting sense of immortality. There is nothing he cannot do; no task too large to attempt, save cleaning out the refrigerator. The display of strength and toughness is their stock in trade, their language, a silent articulation of challenge to each other and to the world.

It is this seemingly reckless sense of opportunistic animalism that drives the man into pursuits that prudent judgment may otherwise deem to be of unacceptable risk. Within man exists a contradiction. On the job and at home he is sane, rational, intelligent and skillful. Yet in an athletic endeavor, he is a man possessed, immune to pain inflicted or received; every injury is healed by the magic phrase, “Walk it off.” In this alternate universe, the highest compliment is, “Dude, he’s crazy!”

Man is inspired by visions of professional sports. In his mind, the images of athletes, their bodies cut like faceted diamonds throw themselves about their particular fields of endeavor with violent abandon. But their uniforms hide the cuts and bruises. Their skulls secreting the damaged brain matter held precariously within. Man knows not, nor cares not, that behind each of these star-crossed professional warriors is a battalion of medical miracle-workers armed with truckloads of diagnostic and treatment technology, all designed and purchased with the sole intent of getting that 8-figure contract back on the field as quickly as possible. However, for the ordinary man (alas, not ordinary in HIS mind!) what awaits his injured person is the neighborhood mediquick clinic and a couch where he will receive icepacks and derision from his dearly beloved.