About Me

Pearl City, HI, United States

Friday, December 30, 2011

Resolutions and the Power of Decision

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey
(except quoted portions)

"A resolution to avoid an evil
is seldom framed till the evil is so far advanced
as to make avoidance impossible."
--Thomas Hardy.

"Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed
is more important than any other."
--Abraham Lincoln

We all seem to go through this exercise every New Years.  We look back at our past life, identify certain faults and bad habits, swear to ourselves that we will strive to overcome them -- and then two weeks later, rationalize our way right out of them.  It is a so very human thing to do.  Thomas Hardy's quote above would certainly sting most of us.  The further down the hill you walk, the harder it will be to climb it again.  The trick is to identify those disasters-in-making before they become so large and so difficult that fixing them becomes impossible.

While we may tell others that we're happy with our lives, very few of us really are.  There's always something we can fix, some bad decisions we can avoid, and even some situations we can try to put behind us.  Part of that is good, in that we should always strive to better ourselves.  Joe Namath once said, "I can't wait until tomorrow because I get better looking every day."  Putting aside the obvious self-absorption in that statement, it's not a bad attitude to have.  We all have value; to ourselves, to others, and to God.  To ignore that and focus on the bad parts is at the very least, counterproductive.  We should take a moment at this time of the year and reflect back for a few moments on the good we've done.  Knowing that we have done kind, unselfish, and loving things in the past should make it much easier to do them again in the future. 

As I've written before, my habit is to not make resolutions until the spring.  The return of sun, warmth, and new growth helps me to reinforce those promises that in the past have died a quick death in the long, cold days of January and February.  Historically, those resolutions I have made in April and May have been far more successful than the ones I used to make in January. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Searching for "Home"

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey
(Except quoted lyrics)

You and I have memories
Longer than the road
That stretches out of here
Getting nowhere on our way back home
we're on our way home
we're going home

--"Two of Us" 

Written by Boney M

Shopping for a new home is an experience that touches a person on so many levels, and engages most of the baser emotions. "Home" as a concept is something quite different from "house." A house is just a structure, a place where a person sleeps at night. A home, on the other hand, is so much more. It is a structure, true. But it is that place where safety and security provide a place for love to exist, even to flourish.

Home is where we go when the world has turned against us, a door to shut out all that creates the miseries of our lives. It is where family lives, where all can be sure that love trumps judgement.

So when we shop for a home, we're not just looking for a building to contain us and our stuff. We're looking for that one place where we can be..."us."

Like many, I have had in my mind, and perhaps in my heart, the place I have always dreamed about. Some of the details change, but I know that it has a big front porch, with white posts and a pair of rocking chairs where we can pass a pleasant evening. The interior details I leave to Cheryl, except that I'd like to have a room where bookshelves line the walls, where a desk and computer wait to give life to the words that flow through my brain. I'd like the house to have a sense of style that touches the past without surrendering things like in-the-wall wiring for electronics and computers.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Civil War: Events of January 1862

On the first day of the new year, General  Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson opened what was called the Romney campaign, or the Valley campaign.  It was the campaign through the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia during spring 1862  in which Jackson employed audacity and rapid, unpredictable movements on interior lines.  His 17,000 men marched 646 miles in 48 days and won several minor battles as they successfully engaged three Union armies (52,000 men), preventing them from reinforcing the Union offensive against Richmond.
This was also the first day of the United States first income tax, a levy of 3% of incomes greater than $600, and 5% on incomes over $10,000.
On the 4th, Jackson’s force attacked Bath, Virginia, and on the 6th, his artillery shelled Hancock, MD for two days from the West Virginia side of the Potomac River.
On January 10th, President Lincoln, becoming frustrated by McClellan’s lack of aggressiveness, met with Irvin McDowell, William Franklin, Salmon P. Chase, Edwin Stanton, and Thomas Scott, telling them “…if McClellan is not going to use the army any time soon, I would like to borrow it.”

Saturday, December 24, 2011

So, This is Christmas

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

The event occurred over 2000 years ago, and the date is still in dispute.  In the midst of the crush and chaos of a government-ordered census in the city of Bethlehem, a baby was born to the wife of an itinerant carpenter from the tiny village of Nazareth.  There being no room at the regular inns, the couple were relegated to the mean shelter of a cave used as a stable.  Sometime during the night, some say as a new star shone brightly above, the baby arrived.  He would be praised by people as the Son of God, but eventually put to an agonizing death by most of those very same people. 

The "official" histories of the region mention him rarely, if at all, yet one is hard-pressed to name another person who has had such a profound effect on humanity. 

We celebrate this birth on December 25, although most historians agree the event most likely happened in April.  The holiday is a curious mixture of Christian belief and pagan symbolism, the baby Jesus displayed alongside Christmas trees.  A beloved and bearded character dressed in red and white delights young and old alike, the blending of several historical personas.  It happens just after the Winter Solstice, the time when the dark of night lasts much longer than the light of day, and even this is seen as symbolism, as houses and buildings are decorated with brightly-colored strings of lights. As those displays push back the dark, so we believe the arrival of the Prince of Peace also pushed back the darkness with the light of love.

It is a time of selfless giving, when people are generous with their time and resources to help those less fortunate.  Charities receive their biggest contributions of the year, and in every city volunteers give up part of their day to prepare and serve a turkey dinner to the homeless, a few moments of warmth and acceptance before they return to the cold streets.  People exchange gifts, some small and humble, others extravagant and expensive.  Folks gather for parties at businesses, clubs, churches, and other places, breaking bread and spreading cheer and best wishes. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Riding Plans

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

For most of the years I've been riding motorcycles, I've been lucky to live in areas where traffic wasn't a real problem.  Sure, there were specific places where you really didn't want to be during rush hour, but while those locations were all knotted up, there were others where I could get free of the gridlock.  Not so here in Northern Virginia.  Traffic is bad.  I have to get to work by 6:00 a.m. in order to get free of most of the mess, but mainly because if I leave the office anytime after 3:30, then it's 9 miles of stop-and-go in first and second gear. 

I miss the 30 miles of wide-open US219 in Pennsylvania and the similar stretch of I-70 through Missouri.  Cruising at highway speeds is not only better for the bike, it's better for the rider as well.  Stop-and-go is very hard on the clutch and tiring on the clutch hand as well.  I remember on one ride from Pennsylvania to Richmond, VA I was caught on I-95 in the fallout from an accident some 40 miles ahead.  I ended up overheating the clutch, which forced me to the side of the road.  I parked the bike and got off...and then almost got crushed by some crazy lady in a Suburban who was cruising the shoulder. 

The hardest part of this commute is that there's no real alternate route.  All the roads are crowded, and the side streets rarely connect.  On one particular Friday, It took over an hour to get those 9 miles and I literally never got higher than 2nd gear.  I guess the other thing I miss is the freedom to take a longer more scenic route.  In the big city, there's just no such thing.  In looking at the map, I think I'd have to go 30 or 40 miles further west before things really opened up.  It's kind of frustrating, but at least around here, winter hasn't really started yet.  There have been one or two 20-degree mornings, and a surprising amount of rain, but I can still get a day or two of riding in.  Up in PA, there's snow on the ground and sand and salt on the roads.  My bike would alread be in hibernation.

Monday, December 19, 2011

It Takes a Village to Sell Groceries

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

One of the vivid memories from my childhood was our regular weekly trip to the grocery store.  We lived in glorious suburbia, an area where a 5-story building was considered a high-rise.  We always went on Friday night, payday for my Dad.  It was a fun time for me because they let me redeem the week's worth of soda bottles.  I got 18 cents, which in those halcyon days was enough for a comic book and a Hostess Twinkie. 

While I was engaged in picking out my weekly reading material, my parents walked the aisles, picking up those miriad items that fed our family for the next seven days.  Money was always on their minds -- I remember my Dad leaving the store one day, grumbling that ten dollars of groceries now fit in one bag.  He's gone now, but I'm sure he'd shake his head to know that ten dollars of groceries doesn't even require a bag anymore. 

A grocery store was kinda boring for a kid.  I was far more interested in the consumption end of the food chain, so wandering the aisles tended to make my eyes glaze over.  But what I remember clearly were aisles and shelves, coolers and freezers, and a deli.  That was a grocery store.

How things have changed.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Muse on a Winter's Morn

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey
I step out the door and my senses are shocked by the cold air. My exhalations become visible clouds as I blink away tears. The sky is still dark, the stars above brilliantly sharp points of light. Sunrise is still two hours away and will last but a short time before falling below the horizon in what used to be the middle of the afternoon. The world is silent; the music of birdsong has gone with their artists southward to warmer climes. What I do hear is the distant sound of traffic, the steady "aahhhh" of tires rolling on pavement. Cold air is dense and thus transmits sound much more efficiently and in the distance those sounds of humans beginning their day fill the void of nature's silence.

Winter mornings are like that, at least the ones that I remember. One such morning I awoke in a tent in woods I thought were miles from civilization. Yet, as I stepped out into the darkness, I could hear in the distance the sound of a highway. 

We're closing in on the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. On that day the sun won't rise until after most of us are at work. And when we leave, night will have already fallen. We miss the sun and recall with nostalgia it's warmth on our face. And yet, in the midst of this darkness, it is also Christmas, a season of light. All around us, houses have been decorated, some simply, others with displays rivaling Fremont Street in Las Vegas. The lights dispel the dark and bring welcome color and cheer to our hearts. We scramble in these last few shopping days to complete the gift lists and the preparations for the traditional family gatherings. For some, this means plotting that trip to the airport; for others, preparing our house for the coming invasion. The kids are bubbling with excitement and anticipation and their happy spirits lighten our hearts. No matter how old we get, this time of year always brings back the child within.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Cosmic Reflections On a Rainy Evening

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

Early December and it's pouring rain outside here in Northern Virginia.  Our former hometown up in the mountains is in the process of receiving about 8 more inches of snow, the fourth accumulating snow they've had so far this year.  Just outside our hotel room door, my motorcycle sits, bagged against the weather, and staring the end of the riding season square in the eye.

With the immediate surroundings so grim, my mind has drifted beyond the immediate meteorological mess to the universe beyond our little planet.

As I've noted before, I am a big fan of the website "Astronomy Picture of the Day."   Every day, I get my space fix through images detailing stars, nebulae, whole galaxies, collection of galaxies, the wonders of the observable universe.

Science has known for some time that at the center of most known galaxies lies objects called Supermassive black holes.  They may have started out as the tombstone of a massive star, but are billions of times more massive than the sun that sits at the center of our star system.  The black hole generates a gravity field so intense that even light itself can't escape.  Around the edge, a disc of white-hot matter spins as nearby stars spiral in, get ripped apart, and fall into the black hole to end up...well, no one knows where.  This is not news to anyone who's ever watched the Discover or Science Channel, but my musings on this wet evening go well beyond even those far-off stellar mysteries.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Civil War: Events of December 1861

On December 7, Stonewall Jackson scored a significant victory by disrupting major Union logistical and transportation infrastructure when he attacked and destroyed the West Virginia side of Dam Number 5 on the Potomac River.  The destruction affected water levels on the C&O canal and made it very difficult to repair the B&O railroad lines.

On December 10, John T. Ford acquired a lease to the former First Baptist Church on 10th Street in Washington.  He converted the building to a theater, which he named after himself.

The Battle of Camp Allegheny was fought on December 13 at a site in Pocahontas County in what is now West Virginia.  Rebel troops commanded by Colonel Edward Johnson  had occupied the summit of the mountain, defending  the Staunton-Parkersburg Pike.  The camp was attacked by a Union force under BGEN Robert Milroy.  The battle ebbed and flowed across the battlefield throughout a day that, while sunny, was cold and windy.  In the afternoon, a Confederate artillery barrage against their fortifications, largely destroying them.  Johnson then led an attack, at one point personally laying into the Union troops with a musket in one hand and a club in another.  Milroy’s troops were forced to retreat.  The Rebel leader’s leadership and courage led his troops to bestow  one of the more colorful nicknames of any leader during the war.  After this battle, he would be known as “Allegheny Johnson.”

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thoughts From a Sunset Train Ride

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

Now three weeks into my new job and new city, some semblance of routine is finally asserting itself, although I don't know that I'll ever get accustomed to waking up at four a.m.  Still, the new opportunities are exciting and the future looks like a thrill ride waiting to happen.

I've already written about the dynamics of my commute, so I won't bore anyone with more details about that.  But one thing that I've discovered in my two-hour car-train-subway-bus journey is that I have time now to think.  A mass-transit commute provides that, since sitting there waiting for the next stop is essentially empty time anyway.  I do listen to music some times, but I find more and more that the best way to spend those hours is to gaze out the window and let my mind wander in whatever direction it desires.  For a writer, these are truly precious hours.

I love the train most of all.  It's less crowded, quieter and more contemplative.  The landscape glides by the windows, sights of cities, towns, and back yards.  A house will flash into my view, all lit up in the late autumn darkness.  Inside, I catch a snapshot of someone else's life.  A family sitting down to dinner, or just in front of the TV.  One evening, I saw in a family room a pile of intertwined humanity engaged in a game of Twister.  I smile, knowing that I am also headed to a place where love glows and I am embraced by the unbreakable bonds of family.  There have been too many other nights when I was traveling for work, feeling lonely, and wishing that one of those lighted windows belonged to me.

Has the Wall of Einstein Finally Cracked?

The famous Hubble Deep Field. Image credit NASA/JPL 
Each one of those smudges is a galaxy, like our Milky Way, containing between 200 billion and 500 billion stars, like our Sun.  Perhaps ten percent of those stars may have planets.  And maybe, just maybe, 0.01% of those planets (which works out to about a million worlds) may harbor intelligent life.  The Universe is a place with more possibilities than any human can imagine.
Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey,
written content only
For centuries, humans have looked to the night skies and seen a vast expanse that for the most part never changes. Oh, you’ll see meteorites, comets, and the occasional supernova, but by and large, the night sky never changes. The stars that make up the familiar constellations Orion the Hunter and the two Dippers have always been there, and will likely still be recognizable touchstones in the sky when the human species fades away.
The unchanging nature of the universe extends itself to the science of physics, the root of which is the theory of relativity, authored by Albert Einstein in 1905. Einstein is widely acknowledged as the greatest scientific mind humanity has ever produced. His theory has been poked and prodded at ever since, but despite all the challenges, it remains the cornerstone of our understanding of the universe.
I won’t take the space to explain all the ramifications of Relativity Theory, but one of its basic tenets is the assertion that it is impossible for a material object to travel faster than the speed of light. And that speed, 186,000 miles per second, has been the constant by which all things in the universe have been measured and the universe itself understood.
In March of this year, scientists working at the CERN lab near Geneva, Switzerland conducted an experiment where they sent a burst of particles called neutrinos on a journey of some 730 kilometers to another lab near L’Aquila, Italy. What the original purpose of the experiment was hasn’t been discussed but the results have shaken the physics community to its very foundations.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Having That Traffic Chat

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

Moving to the big city would have consequences.  This, I knew.  Things cost more, everywhere is further away, and things just aren’t as convenient.  As I review the past two weeks in the Washington DC area though, the traffic has far and away been the biggest adjustment.  

Somerset lies at a crossroads of several state and US highways as well as the Pennsylvania Turnpike.  But traffic is rarely an issue.  Saturday mornings on North Center Avenue can be a real challenge as people make their shopping forays to the retailers and grocers that line that particular street.  Other than that, it’s a rare thing to actually have to slow down or even take the car off cruise control.

I’ve lived in big cities before, most with major traffic problems (L.A. for five years), so I’m not altogether a virgin at this kind of thing.  But I’m an older and slower man now, so things are tougher.

As anyone who has lived in the DC-Northern Virginia area can testify, everything in life revolves around “the commute.”  Basic decisions of life are made with that daily drive in mind.  The area is awash in freeways, most of which seem to be under construction or repair, as the authorities strive in vain to keep up with the flood of vehicles that stream in, out, and through the area daily.  It’s ironic that so many are out of work right now, but to look at the area freeways in rush hour, you’d think the economy was booming.

Heavy traffic does things to people.  Some become very aggressive, zipping in and out of lanes, taking advantage of the smallest hole only to be brought to a sudden halt.  At the other extreme are those who take things easy, leaving a lot of room in front of them and easing off the accelerator instead of constantly using the brakes. Then there are the rest of us, alternatively driving hard for certain stretches and then resigning ourselves to the slow crawl.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011


Copyright © by Ralph Couey

I'll never forget the moment.  It was my last day in uniform, capping 10 years of a globe-trotting Navy career.  I had spent the morning with the inspector from the Navy Housing Office as she cleared us out of quarters.  The furniture had been gone about a week, the kids with in-laws in Hawaii, and Cheryl was in Missouri already on her new job.  I was alone, but looking forward to the time when we'd be all together again.

The afternoon I spent aboard the ship, completing the checkout process and saying my farewells.  Finally, everything was finished and after one last nostalgic tour of the ship, I ended up on the quarterdeck.  For the last time, I saluted the Officer of the Deck, saying those long-anticipated words, "Request permission to leave the ship."  I then saluted the flag, and headed down the brow.  When my feet hit the concrete surface of the pier, I suddenly felt a dizzying sense of disorientation.  I was homeless.  I was jobless.  I had no place to go, no sanctuary.  Looking back at the magnificent gray lady that had carried us across the seas, I realized that I was now an outsider.

My recent situation brought back those desolate feelings with full force.  I've changed jobs and am in the process of changing locations as well.  While we still have our home in Somerset, it will be going on the market soon, and then we will get serious about finding a home in our new location.  But on that day when I left my job for the last time, the memories of that day 20 years ago came flooding back.  I had spent the week doing those multitudinous tasks associated with ending a professional relationship, including passing my current projects onto their new custodians.  The rest of the time, I spent talking and saying goodbye to people who had become more than colleagues, much more than friends.  It was bittersweet and at that moment when I turned over my access badge to the security officer, I was under a bit of a cloud.

I left the building, crossed the street, and like Lot's wife, I turned and gazed back at the building where I had invested so much of myself.  For years, this had been a familiar place for me.  I was part of the town, I was part of the organization.  But in that moment, I realized I could never go back in there again. I felt empty and alone.  Once again, after a short walk, I was an outsider.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Death and Dimensionality

Vortex Tunnel from http://www.gepproductions.com/vortextunnel.html

Copyright © 2011 (Written content only) by Ralph Couey
“Life” has many definitions from the physiological to the metaphysical, but can be basically characterized as that period of existence when the body is functional and the brain active.  It is generally accepted to begin at birth, and end when the body and the brain cease to function.  It also can go beyond pure biological function to describe the universe in which we live.
Our existence consists of three dimensions:  length, width, and height, thus we live in a “3-dimensional universe.”  Many, however, grow this to include the dimension of time.  Scientists have postulated the existence of higher dimensions for quite some time.  M-Theory, a development of String Theory, proposes that there may be as many as ten spatial dimensions.
To understand this at a very basic level, take a piece of paper and draw a straight line.  This is a one dimensional construct.  Now draw another line at a right angle to the first one.  Now you have two dimensions.  Imagine living in such a universe.  You have forward and back, left and right, but up and down are utterly unknown to you.  Were you to use additional line segments to draw walls, you could create a small “house”.  But from the lofty perch of the third dimension, you see that walls are not obstacles.  You can see inside structures.  Were there inhabitants of such a town, you could observe them wherever they went. 
Now stand the pencil upright with the point at the intersection of two lines.  Now, you have created up and down.  This is where you live, in this third realm, 90 degrees apart from flatland.
The creation of a fourth physical dimension would require you to draw another line segment, 90 degrees away from the other three.  Of course, you can’t; nobody can.  But just imagine that another being is watching from atop his line segment, observing you as you move around your little universe. 
Such a higher dimension is possible, but since it can never be proven, it remains a theory.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

The Civil War: Events of November 1861

On November 1, the highly-popular George McClellan was promoted to General-in-Chief of the entire Union Army.
On the 2nd, President Lincoln relieved the controversial John C. Fremont from duty.
Two days later, the U.S. Navy entered Port Royal Sound which lies between the strategically vital ports of Charleston, SC and Savannah, GA after being battered by a fierce storm on the trip down the coast.  On that same day, Major General Thomas Jackson, now called “Stonewall,” took command of Confederate forces in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.
On November 6th, Jefferson Davis was elected to the office of President of the Confederacy for a 6-year term.
November 7th saw the opening of a major attack and amphibious operation against the Confederate forts of Fort Walker and Fort Beauregard guarding the entrance to Port Royal Sound.  Union commander Flag Officer Samuel DuPont put his ships on an elliptical path, bombarding first one fort, then the other.  The Union ships were challenged by Rebel gunboats, but the smaller craft fled when fired upon.  By early afternoon, the guns at Fort Walker were silenced, and the troops were withdrawn.  The commander of Fort Beauregard followed suit and Union soldiers were landed and took possession of both forts.  As a result of this action, Union forces moved north, taking St. Helena Sound and the city of Beaufort.  The Port of Charleston was besieged and remained that way to the war’s end.
That same day, Ulysses S. Grant saw his first action as commander of the District of Southeast  Missouri when, on his way to attack Rebel forces at Columbus, Kentucky, learned that enemy troops had crossed the Mississippi and occupied Belmont, Missouri.  Grant landed his force on the Missouri side of the river and overran the encampment.  However, the Confederate remnants reorganized and reinforced from Columbus, counter-attacked, supported by heavy artillery from across the river.  Grant was forced to retreat to Paducah, Kentucky.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

"W" Also Stands for "Whoa"

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey
The Chiefs won.  On Monday Night Football.  A field goal tipped the game in OT causing what might have been the largest mass-orgasm in Arrowhead history.   I suppose I should just let it go at that.  Some things, no matter how joyful they may seem, should not be examined too closely.  Such was this game.
The San Diego media this morning is full of the typical wailing, gnashing of teeth, and garment rending that appears in every newspaper (including the Star) when the Home Team throws up a real skunker on national television.  Even though the Chargers are a divisional rival, I still empathize.  That fumble between center and quarterback will live forever in lurid full-color HD memory for all Bolts faithful, not the least of whom would be the two players involved.  It’s the kind of disastrous occurrence one looks back on from the 20/20 hindsight of February with a certainty that that’s where the season soured.  The Chargers have the 7-0 Packers next week and nobody sees a good outcome in that contest.
Before I say anything else, let me opine that the officiating was about the worst I can ever remember.  It’s not all that unusual when one official blows a call.  But this whole crew seemed to have partaken of way too much allergy medication before kickoff.  Let’s be honest.  Antonio Gates did not commit offensive pass interference.  And Dexter McCluster’s fumble was clearly caused by the ground.  The crew from ESPN, some of whom have played a game or two, were baffled by the quality of the calls. 

Monday, October 31, 2011

Farewell to the Laurel Highlands**

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

*Somerset, PA Daily American
October 29, 2011
as "Farewell Somerset County

*Johnstown, PA  Tribune-Democrat
October 30, 2011
as "Farewell, my friends; a new chapter is beginning"

If there is one constant in the universe, it’s that change is the only constant.  If you watch the night skies long enough, even the universe changes.

Human life is fluid and dynamic; never static.  We seek stability; the comfort of routine and familiarity.  But like a hungry predator, change lurks; crouched and ready to spring when we least expect it.  I’ve been its prey many times.  But then I’ve always been drawn to the far horizon.  I’ve never “put down roots” no matter how inviting the soil.  For me, there was always another place to go, another life to live.  But for the last seven years, this place has been my home.

The exigencies of politics in a city 3 hours distant ignited a chain of events that has once again set loose the predator.  In a few days, I will leave this place for another.  A page has turned; a chapter has closed.  

Seven years ago, Cheryl and I left Missouri and came here.  I’d never been to Pennsylvania before and really didn’t know what to expect.  There were only three things I knew about the Keystone State:  The Steelers, Willie Stargell, and Ben Franklin.

In the years since, I’ve come to love this place.  The natural beauty of the Laurel Highlands in all its moods, from high summer to the depths of winter, touched the poet
within me.  I found solace in the cool of the forests and the streams that murmured their secrets as I walked along their banks.  With my motorcycle, I found thrills in the winding mountain roads tracing landscapes vibrant with life. 

Friday, October 21, 2011

Why "Change" and "Pain" Rhyme

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

It is so seductive to float through life on the calm seas of predictable routine.  It’s a comfortable, if somewhat tedious existence.  But the alternative means enduring upheaval and uncertainty, not the kind of excitement we generally seek in our lives. In the novel “Andromeda Strain,” author Michael Crichton quotes Lewis Bornheim, who defines a crisis as “a situation in which a previously tolerable set of circumstances is suddenly, by the addition of another factor, rendered wholly intolerable.”  Now that’s a lot of long words from a guy I’m pretty sure is fictional, since the only references I can find for “Lewis Bornheim” is that quote from the novel.  But let me put it to you this way.
An afternoon drive in the country becomes a crisis when the engine quits.  Dinner preparations become a crisis when the oven stops working.  A Super Bowl party becomes a crisis when the flat screen dies.  Work on a paper or a project becomes a crisis when the blue screen of death appears on the computer monitor.
In my case, the even tenor of life was thrown into chaos when I was informed that I was being transferred to another state.  Granted, this was something I desperately wanted to happen, but I discovered that there is a huge difference between wanting something, and actually getting it.
My new employers are making this process as easy as they can, but there is still a mountain of work for me to accomplish and not a lot of time to get it done.
The first priority has been to prepare the house for the real estate market.  These days, that’s a scary leap into some very troubled waters.  Home values have plummeted.  At one time the concern was to gain as much equity as possible in the sale.  Now homeowners desperately hope that the offers will at least clear the mortgage.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Sitcom's Biggest Bang

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

It was a slow evening.  Cheryl had gone out for the evening with one of her friends and I had found myself in the classic squeeze of entertainment poverty.  Out of some 200 available channels on crystal clear digital satellite television, there wasn’t a single thing worth watching.  I had long ago exhausted my prurient fascination with reality shows.  The games on the Connecticut sports channel’s family were either blowouts or involved teams I didn’t care about.  Even the old standby, Law & Order, was an episode I had seen enough times to have the dialogue committed to memory.  Of all the science-oriented channels there wasn’t a single one running a program on planetary apocalypse.  My evening just isn’t complete without an image of a giant asteroid crashing into Cleveland, a deadly gamma ray burst, a super volcano eruption, or a magnitude 15 earthquake.  Or at least the computer-generated recreation of same.   Normally this would be a night I would pull out the Godfather and watch that classic of American cinema.  But Cheryl would not be gone long enough to watch even one of the three movies, and she and I have a long-standing agreement that I can only watch those movies when she’s not there.  Being a man of honor, I chose to leave Marlon and the boys in their sleeves.
Wandering over to TBS, I saw they were running back-to-back-to-back episodes of the comedy show “The Big Bang Theory.”  I had heard of this show, but hadn’t ever watched it, for several reasons.  First of all, sitcoms generally bore me to tears.  The scripts are predictable, the humor contrived and uncreative, being overly dependent on bodily functions.  Besides, they never featured crashing asteroids.  The last TV series I watched regularly was Gilmore Girls.  The writing featured the creative fast-paced bang-bang type of humor I fell in love with during the early years of “Moonlighting.”  So having nothing to do, and the balance of the evening to do it in, I decided to tune in.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Becoming Grampa and Gramma

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey
There are three distinct “highs” in the life of most adults.  There’s marriage, when you commit yourself, body and soul, toanother person for the rest of your life.  Then there’s the moment when you become parents.  There’s simply not another moment like the one when you hold a tiny infant in your arms for the first time and come face to face with the shocking realization that you are now a parent.  The sense of delight and wonder is balanced by the awesome responsibility you feel for the life of another human.
What follows are a couple of decades of barely-managed chaos and insanity as you strive to give to the world a hard-working contributing member of society.  Or, failing that, at least getting them to adulthood alive and without a rap sheet.  But eventually, they do grow to the point where they can stand on their own two feet.  As you watch them fly from the nest, there is a bit of a letdown.  The one thing that has been the purpose in your life is gone. 
What follows is a succession of days, weeks, and months you find out is that there’s no hobby, no career, no avocation that carries with it the same ecstatic highs, devastating lows, and meaning as raising children.
The hardest thing is that creeping sense that they don’t need you anymore.  The whole reason why you struggled through those child-rearing years was to make them independent.  But as time goes by and the phone stops ringing, and the frequency of mail falls off, it’s a hard feeling to shake.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Sojourn: A Guide for Motocycle Trips

Two views of my old PC800 loaded for long distance, above, in Bisbee, Arizona..

...and Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
(Both images scanned from photographs)

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

In the past, vacation trips were rarely about a particular destination.  They were rather about the trip itself and the many stops along the way.  It was that philosophy that sent Americans out on legendary highways such as Route 66, Route 50, US 1, and California 1, the famed Pacific Coast Highway.  If you left Chicago on Route 66 heading west, you weren’t just traveling to the Santa Monica Pier in California.  You were going to see St. Louis; cowboys between Tulsa and Amarillo; the high plains of Tucumcari, Albuquerque, and Gallup; The deserts and mountains of Holbrook, Flagstaff, Kingman, and Barstow, and then, and only then, the cool waters of the Pacific Ocean.  The point of the trip was not to dabble your toes in the surf, but all the natural beauty and wonder of the American west.

People don’t travel like that anymore.  Most have a single destination in mind, minimize the travel time to that place, and then rack and stack everything you want (or feel obligated) to do into those few days.  That kind of a killer schedule has led to the oft-voiced phrase, “I need a vacation from my vacation.”

However, that old spirit of adventure hasn’t vanished entirely.  Within the motorcycle community it lives and breathes in the hearts of sojourners who have never forgotten the power of a journey.

I’ve taken a few long trips, all of which still live in vivid recollections.  While they were all fun and adventurous, there were those things I planned well, those I didn’t, and other details I never thought about.  Hopefully there is some value in those experiences that will assist others in planning trips.

Planning the trip

Friday, September 30, 2011

Seeking the Glory of Autumn**

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

*Chicago Tribune
October 14, 2011
as "The peak is here"

*Somerset, PA Daily American
October 15, 2011
as "Peak is here"
After eleven long months of waiting, October, my favorite month has finally arrived.

I’ve written a lot about my love of autumn, maybe too much. But I can’t help myself. I love forests, but when the chlorophyll is withdrawn from the leaves and their natural colors reveal themselves, a dormant part of myself comes alive. 

It is the month I actually make time to spend in the woods, camera in hand, or winding along the roads through these mountains trying to capture forever these all-too-ephemeral days.

We are so very fortunate to be in an area that rarely disappoints us leaf hunters. Vermont and New Hampshire may boast and brag, but the Laurel Highlands is truly a fall foliage paradise.

We live in what is called “Fall Zone 2” a…well…tree-shaped area of Pennsylvania. The roots and trunk start in the east in Pike, Monroe, and Northampton counties and runs west as far as Centre County where it “branches” northwest to Erie and southwest to Fulton, engulfing the rest of the western half of Pennsylvania. As far as I can determine according to several authoritative websites, the peak of these counties should arrive this weekend. The warm summer and abundant (in some cases over-abundant) rainfall, along with the prompt arrival of cool weather has provided the set-up for what I’m told should be one of the most spectacular years in recent memory.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Friendships and the Pain of Farewell*

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
October 17, 2011
as "The only constant in life is change"

Our environment is often spoke of as nature, the sun, moon, trees, climate, all the elements of our world. But we also exist in another atmosphere; one of people, friends, loved ones, and acquaintances. They occupy our home and workplace; where we play and worship. They become a part of the very air we breathe.

In recent weeks hard times have hit home in my world. Layoffs have been in the news a lot, an unwelcome accompaniment to hard times.  

But now it’s personal. 

People…friends who have been a beloved presence in my life have gone away. It’s been a sad time, this parting.  But the most admirable thing is the courage with which they faced the coming change. They refused to be bitter or angry. They talked instead about possibilities and how they believed in themselves, refusing to surrender to self-pity. 

Above all, they spoke of faith in God. “Everything happens for a reason,” one said, “and it’s up to me to discover that reason.”

When my time comes I wonder if I can be that brave; that faithful.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Civil War Events of October 1861

On October 3, Union forcers under Joseph Reynolds fought an inconclusive action against Confederates under Henry Jackson.  The Union’s aim was to dislodge Confederate troops from a camp near present-day Bartow, WV in order to clear an invasion route into Virginia.  Jackson’s forces were in the throws of sickness that had reduced their effective numbers by 2/3.  It was cold, wet, and miserable when Reynolds attacked the camp.  Rebel sentries had left their posts without relief which allowed the Union forces to enter the camp.  Upon hearing the sounds of battle, the 52nd Virginia Infantry ran to the fight, keeping the Union from over-running the camp.  The battle raged for some five hours before Reynolds retreated to Cheat Mountain.
A new development in warfare was demonstrated before President Lincoln on October 4th.  A hot air balloon intended to be used as an observation platform floated into the skies outside of Washington, thus inaugurating the use of aerial platforms in battle.
On that same date, the CSA government signed treaties with the Shawnee and Seneca Indian tribes.
In England, the division of opinion over the American Civil War was demonstrated in editorials by the two major newspapers.  The London Post on October 5 backed the idea of an independent Southern government, while the London Times in an earlier editorial backed the restoration of the Union.
On October 6, Winfield Scott relieved General Robert Anderson of his command of the Kentucky Department after Anderson suffered an emotional and mental breakdown.
Continuing to reach out to the Native tribes, the CSA concluded another treaty with the Cherokee on October 7th.
General William T. Sherman was given General Anderson’s command on October 8th.
On the 11th, William S. Rosecrans took command of the Federal Department of Western Virginia.
On October 12, the ship Theodora left Charleston Harbor carrying two CSA commissioners bound for England and France.
Also on the 12th, the CSA ironclad warship attacked the Union warship Richmond on the Mississippi River.
The CSA began selling postage stamps on the 16th.
A growing conflict between CSA Generals Johnston and Beauregard came to a head when President Jefferson Davis stepped in on the 19th to try to settle the dispute.
On October 21, a series of reconnaissance probes undertaken by Union General in Chief  McClelland resulted in the Battle of Balls Bluff.  Union troops attempted a crossing of the Potomac River into Virginia, but lacked sufficient boats to carry the entire force.  In the battle, CSA forces pushed the Union troops to the edge of the bluffs.  In an attempt to evacuate, overloaded boats were capsized and some troops drowned, their bodies floating as far south as Mt. Vernon.  While an action that didn’t accomplish much strategically, it had far-reaching political effects.  A sitting U.S. Senator Edward Dickinson Baker was killed in the action.  This being the third lost battle by the Union (including Manassas and Wilson’s Creek), Congress established the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War which would be an albatross on the necks of Union commanders for the balance of the war, and would lead to political infighting among Union Generals.  A participant in the battle, Lt. Oliver Wendell Holmes, survived a near-fatal wound to eventually become Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
On October 22, the Confederate Army of the Potomac was placed under the Department of Northern Virginia.
On that day the first coast-to-coast telegraph line was completed and on the 24th, the first transcontinental telegram was sent from San Francisco to Washington.  This development ended the famed Pony Express.
West Virginians overwhelmingly voted in favor of becoming a new state under the Union on the 24th.
On October 31, and aging and infirm Winfield Scott was relieved from duty as Supreme Commander of the United States Army.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Collection of Summer Haiku

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

The days are now hot
Air is hazy and humid
My forehead is damp

The school doors open
Finally free, we run home
Students are now kids

Dad packs up the car
“Buckle up for adventure!”
The journey begins

Outside the windows
A brand-new world passes by
I’ll have tales to tell

The trip is over
But summer is not yet done
There’s yet time for fun

The ballgame with Dad
Peanuts and sodas we share
Bugs flit in the lights

The Fourth of July
Barbecue’s smell fills the air
Fireworks at night

Back-to-school shopping
New clothes, paper and pencils
Where has summer gone?

One last summer fling
Play like there’s no tomorrow
Because there isn’t.

School year starts today
Sadly we get on the bus
Why is Mom smiling?

A Collection of Spring Haiku

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

The snow is melting
The new grass reveals itself
My spirit awakes

The sun has come out
The air is finally warm
Put the coats away

Open the windows!
Let the fresh breezes blow through!
Refresh my stale soul!

Digging in the dirt
I plant the new year’s seedlings
The earth smells alive

On the garage shelf
I see my old baseball glove
“Wanna have a catch?”

I hear the thunder
The lightning flashes above
The spring rain falling

It’s snowing in March
But it doesn’t make me sad
I know it won’t last

Rivers are flooding
The people are in danger
Homes are washed away

Clouds begin to spin!
A twister is touching down!
Flee to the basement!

Suddenly I hear
The birds are singing again!
Music to my soul

A Collection of Winter Haiku

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

The trees have gone bare
They shake in the frigid wind
The sight makes me sad

Rain can only fall
Snow floats down on Angel’s wings
Softly touching me

The grass was once green
The snow now covers deeply
Hiding until May

Awake in the dark
I hear cold winds through the walls
From ‘neath warm blankets

Winter is lonely
Folks hide inside from the cold
I walk without friends

My shovel in hand
I contemplate the new snow
Sparkling in the sun

Come in from the cold
Stomp the snow from heavy boots
Cocoa and the fire

Walking in the woods
The air is cold and silent
Is it death or sleep?

I feel so tired
I don’t want to go outside
Let me hibernate

Deep in winter’s grip
A long, dark tunnel I see
How I yearn for spring!

A Collection of Fall Haiku

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

I've never tried Haiku before, but Autumn is such a special time of year for me, I thought I'd attempt a few.  These are written in the classic 5-7-5 English Haiku format.

Sunlight through the leaves
The fall colors blaze brightly
The cool breeze rustles

A stream reflects fall
I look down from the stone bridge
The still water glows

Our steps stir the leaves
We smell the perfume of fall
Her hand warm in mine

A Sunset in fall
The sky turns a deep purple
The clouds like gold wreaths

The sun rises late
The day has become so brief
The hours precious

There’s football today
Teams tussle in the cool air
A sweater feels good

Pumpkins on the porch
The glow through evil eyes
Carved by smiling kids

A princess arrives
“Trick or Treat,” she sings with hope
Candy hits the bag

The wind passes through
Leaves fall from far above
Cover me in gold

Night is dark and cold
I can feel the frost forming
I breathe moonlit clouds

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Conundrum of Place Names*

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

*Johnstown Tribune-Democrat
October 9, 2011
as "What's in a name?"
Every community has place names that are, to say the least, odd-sounding whose explanatory origins have been lost in the mists of time
When I first came to Johnstown, I was looking for a place to live.  I called one landlord asking about the vacancy on  “Men-O-Her.”  The landlord replied, “Menocker.”  I responded, “Geseundheit.”  I heard another person refer to the locale of her apartment as being “in the bucket o’ blood.” 
I’m sure there’s a great story there.
One of the hardest things to figure out was the ward system.  A ward is a political subdivision of a city.  I know this.  But the real estate ads are full of locations like the “8th Ward” or the “6th Ward.”  Being new to the area, I had no idea where these places were. It didn’t help that nobody ever bothered to publish a map.
For a while, Giant Eagle grocery stores ran a video outlet called “Iggle.”  It only took me three years to figure out that “Iggle” was how people in Western Pennsylvania pronounce “Eagle.”

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Rhythm of Life**

Words and image Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

*Chicago Tribune
October 7, 2011
as "The rhythm of life"

*Somerset, PA Daily American
October 8, 2011
as "The Rhythm of Life"

I love the changing seasons.  To experience the world as it shifts from summer to fall, to winter and spring, and back to summer is to take comfort in the orderliness of a universe that is impervious to the mistakes and missteps of man.  It’s the way we mark the passage of time that goes beyond clocks and calendars.  

The shift from summer to fall is my most favorite time.  I don’t do well in heat and humidity, so I tolerate summers.  But in mid-September, the air begins to cool.  They sky sheds its milky, hazy summer film to be replaced by a blue that is vivid beyond words.  The nights shift from cool to cold, and some mornings, a coating of frost sparkles on the grass.  The leaves begin their shift from green to a riotous orchestra of brilliant color.  Even the sunlight changes.  Freed of atmospheric haze, the light angles through the forests brilliantly illuminating the changing foliage.  

One morning last week, the alarm went off at its normal time of “too early.”  I’m not a morning person, so the process of going from sleep to full functionality is long and difficult.  It is in this time of year that the shortening day adds an unwelcome degree of difficulty to that process.

I don’t mind getting up early when the sun has beat me to it.  Even rising in the grey light of pre-dawn is acceptable.  But now, when the alarm goes off, it’s still completely dark.  I’m now engaged in a battle between my brain that stoutly insists it’s time to get up, and my body that steadfastly proclaims, “Are you kidding?  It’s still dark!”

Friday, September 16, 2011

"In the Arms of an Angel" and the Healing of Flight 93

Sara Mclachlan was at the Flight 93 National Memorial Dedication service and sang two songs. One was "I Will Remember You," and the other was "In the Arms of an Angel."  Both were so incredibly apropos that it's hard to imagine that they were not written especially for the grieving family members.

"In the Arms of an Angel" really touched me. I was able to feel at least a portion of the incredible sense of loss felt by anyone who has ever unexpectedly lost someone they loved.  With Ms. Mclachlan, the words are only half the story.  Her soft and sadly sweet voice lends a poignancy that the words alone can't convey.  The video is available on You Tube, and I would encourage you to watch it.  The lyrics are printed here as a way of remembering the family and friends of those who were lost, and who grieve still.

Spend all your time waiting for that second chance
For the break that will make it ok
There's always some reason to feel not good enough
And it's hard at the end of the day

I need some distraction oh beautiful release
Memories seep from my veins
They may be empty and weightless and maybe
I'll find some peace tonight

In the arms of an Angel fly away from here
From this dark, cold hotel room, and the endlessness that you fear
You are pulled from the wreckage of your silent reverie
You're in the arms of an Angel; may you find some comfort here

So tired of the straight line, and everywhere you turn
There's vultures and thieves at your back
The storm keeps on twisting, you keep on building the lies
That you make up for all that you lack

It don't make no difference, escaping one last time
It's easier to believe
In this sweet madness, oh this glorious sadness
That brings me to my knees

In the arms of an Angel far away from here
From this dark, cold hotel room, and the endlessness that you fear
You are pulled from the wreckage of your silent reverie
In the arms of an Angel; may you find some comfort here

You're in the arms of an Angel; may you find some comfort here

My Lap-Band Life: 8 Months In

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

After a bad month, I resolved to pay closer attention to my diet, but as the month progressed, I realized that it was taking more food to fill me up.  Instead of going 5 to 6 hours between hunger pangs, I was only able to go about 2 to 3 hours.  So this time when I saw the Doctor, I was the same weight as last month.  I asked, nay demanded, an adjustment and he cheerfully put in about a quarter of a CC.  I could tell the difference immediately.  Now, three days later, I'm already down 5 pounds and I have my portions back under control.  My wife also pointed out that I had been eating more carby foods, which was undoubtedly adding to my hunger problems. So I'm back on the wagon as far as portions and food choices go, and re-energized after some, if not promising, at least concrete information on my job situation.  Last night, I slept a solid 8 hours, something I haven't done in a couple of months.

I'm still losing inches, and my pant and shirt sizes are going down, albeit much slower for which I have only myself to blame.  I can find most of the wardrobe I need at consignment sales and at Goodwill.  But a nice dress shirt (needed for work) is harder to find, since the shirts that end up at Goodwill are so limp and worn that they won't hold a press any longer.  So from time to time, I've been buying a shirt here, a shirt there, when I find really good sales.  That has helped upgrade my appearance.  My old fat shirts are mostly gone, but the few that are left are beginning to look goofy.  The shoulder seams are a good 3-4 inches down my upper arm and the short sleeves now go halfway down my forearm.  All the excess material around my waist actually makes me look bigger.  When standing up to do presentations, if I turn around, my guests see all that extra material gathered up in the back around the waist. 

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Random Thoughts on Calendars and Seasons

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey
September 15th.
Man, wasn’t it August just 20 minutes ago?  Time is absolutely flying by these days, and for once I can’t blame it on my busy life.  I am busy, but not the kind of busy that usually causes the clock and calendar to shift to warp speed.  This may that part of growing older that I’ve read about, that as the years pile up, the days seem to move much faster.
But whether I want it to or not, September is officially half over.  October, my favorite time of year is rapidly approaching.  It’s the one month of the year that I wish would slow down, take its time and drift languidly through its 31-day lifespan.  But as usually happens, there is a significant gap between what I want, and what actually is.
The heat and humidityof summer has finally left us here in the mountains.  The first breaths of cool air have blown down from Canada, and we are now in that time of year when weather shifts wildly and sometimes rapidly.  Two days ago, it was warm, humid, and still.  Tonight, we will have our first frost of the season.  This does create difficulties in dressing one’s self, especially for motorcycling.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Where Do We Go From Here?**

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

*Chicago Tribune
September 16, 2011
as "A legacy to share"

*Somerset, PA Daily American
September 17, 2011
as "A legacy to share"
The anniversary has passed.   All weekend long, speeches were made, songs were sung, and ceremonies were conducted across the country while we as a nation solemnly marked the passing of a decade since the terror attacks on September 11, 2001.
The United States has worn an open wound for ten years.  The trauma of that day, and the days that followed were at times almost too difficult to bear.  Almost 3,000 people, innocents all, whose only crime was going about their normal lives on that day, were murdered in four coordinated acts of sheer hate.
But on this September 11th, we saw signs that perhaps the wound is beginning to close.  We will wear that scar forever, but perhaps now we are starting to heal.
There are now permanent memorials in place and open to the public at all three sites.  The names of those who were lost on that terrible day have been inscribed in stone, to be passed to future generations to honor and remember.
As adults, we measure time by the growth of children.  The children who were barely in elementary school are or will be high school graduates.   We don’t really see significant changes in ourselves over ten years, but in our children we see how time has passed.  Their lives, like ours, were forever altered; their futures will be far different than ours.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Call of 9/11*

Image and Words Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
September 18, 2011
as "The call of 9/11"

The tenth anniversary has past.  The first heat in the breathless race to establish a memorial for the crew and passengers of Flight 93 has been won.  In a field near Shanksville, along one side of the Pentagon in Arlington, and around the empty footprints of two towers in New York City, people gathered.  Across the country, small memorials were dedicated, speeches were made, and words were written.  Everywhere, Americans paused to remember a day that changed us all.

As I sit here, brief images of this past weekend’s events flash by.  We arrived early and spent time talking to others nearby.  Though strangers, we were linked by the common purpose in being there.  We spoke of the common thread of where we were and what we were doing when we first heard the news out of New York; how we felt when we knew our country was under attack.

Every American who was alive, awake, and aware on September 11, 2001 will forever share that common bond.  Because for Americans, everything that happened that day was personal.  

I remember George W. Bush’s words of faith and country; Bill Clinton’s words about the courage of choice; and Joe Biden’s powerful words of how September 11th, 2001 changed us all; as a country, and as individuals. 

I remember the somber tolling of the Bells of Remembrance as the names were read by the family members, and the catch in my throat at the words “…and unborn child.”