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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

Monday, February 28, 2011

Three Important Quotes

Three quotes upon which anyone could build the best kind of life.

The life that conquers is the life that moves
with a steady resolution and persistence
toward a predetermined goal.
Those who succeed are those who have thoroughly learned
the immense importance of plan in life, and the tragic brevity of time.
- W.J. Davison

So, then, to every man his chance --
to every man, regardless of his birth,
his shining golden opportunity
-- to every man his right to live, to work, to be himself,
to become whatever his manhood
and his vision can combine to make him
-- this is the promise of America.
- Thomas Wolfe

When one door of happiness closes, another opens;
but often we look so long at the closed door
that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.
- Helen Keller

The Civil War: March 1861


A new government takes shape in the south.  In Washington, a new President assumes office over a decidedly less-than-United States of America
On March 1, 1861 P. G. T. Beauregard appointed Brigadier General in the Confederate States Army and was sent immediately to Charleston, SC.  General Beauregard would eventually carry the attack on Ft. Sumter in April, starting the Civil War.
On that same day, 1861 Texas was accepted as a state by the provisional government of the Confederate States of America.  The next day, the Texas Secessionist Convention reconvened, where on March 5th, the Convention accepted Confederate Statehood.  Also on March 1st, the U.S. Congress would reject the proposals put forth by the Washington Peace Convention.
The next day, March 2, the U. S. Congress passes a proposed 13th Amendment stating that the Congress will not abolish or interfere with slavery where it exists. The amendment would never be ratified. 
General P. G. T. Beauregard arrives at Charleston on March 3rd and assumed command of Confederate troops South Carolina
On March 4, 1861 Confederate Convention in Montgomery adopted the "Stars and Bars" as the new nation's flag. The flag was introduced to the public the next day. 
Under heavy security on March 4, 1861 Abraham Lincoln is inaugurated President of the United States, already smaller by seven seceded states.  In his inaugural address, he says…

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Bell That Tolls for Us*

*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
March 6, 2011
as "Disaster at our doorstep"

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey
(Except the Dunne quotes)

“No man is an island, entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less.
Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind,
and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls;
it tolls for thee.”
--John Dunne, from “Contemplation XVII”

We live in a world filled with troubles, great and small. It is a measure of this world’s difficulties that even the great tragedies, ones that use to be insulated from us by distance or borders, now reach out to each and every one of us. 

Economic and business news, what once seemed so incredibly boring, now has a primacy that captures our attention and drives our worries as much as if it was a storm and we were in a small boat far out to sea. The vagaries of politics and the complexities of policy debate we now follow with rapt attention. 

Perhaps this is the most telling influence of the information age. No longer will there be a comfortable delay between event and effect. As things happen in countries far away, we will feel the results locally with a rapidity that will take our breath away. Unfortunately, this is not a passing phenomenon, but a new template, one that will define our future as individuals, and as the human species. 

In recent weeks, a number of countries in the Middle East have been experiencing unrest that in some cases may be the onset of revolution. In the not-too-distant past, that would have been interesting news, but not something that would have caused most of us any worry. We actually might have privately cheered for people who were attempting to throw off the yoke of tyranny.  

How things have changed. 

Friday, February 25, 2011

Speech: "Today, We Remember"

Copyright © 2009 by Ralph Couey

“Today, We Remember”
Ten years ago today, the world was changed; our nation was changed; we were changed.  We were ripped from a world of the safe and familiar and plunged into another; a world of dark uncertainty; a world of shock, pain, horror…and fear.  

But out of the darkness of that tragic day, a great light emerged, illuminating this nation from border to border and sea to sea.  We, the people of the United States found our unity.  We stood together; shoulder to shoulder; arm in arm.  We spoke with one voice. 

We felt with one heart. 

And the world stood back in awe.

Today, we remember. 

We remember the shock, the sorrow, and yes, the anger we felt that morning.

But we also remember how we reached out to each other and found comfort, discovering that in the face of shared tragedy, there is no such word as “stranger.”  On 9/11, we Americans proved that we were still “family.”

Today we gather upon this field of honor. 

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Red-Light Purgatory**

*Chicago Tribune
March 4, 2011
as "Purgatory and the dead red light"

*Somerset, PA Daily American
March 5, 2011
as "Purgatory and the dead red light"

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

When one reads about “Dead Red” laws, the image conjured up is of some draconian McCarthy-esque measure from the 1950’s. Actually, it has nothing to do with politics.

Every motorcyclist and bicyclist is familiar with the frustration of pulling up to and intersection and watching the lights go through 2 or 3 cycles without getting the green. This problem has been the subject of increasingly vociferous lobbying from riders.

Some intersections don’t have automatically sequenced lights. They’re triggered by sensors buried in the roadway. These sensors don’t rely on weight, but mass. As a large metal object, like a car or truck, rolls up, the steel creates a “bubble” in the ambient magnetic field. This bubble is detected by the sensors which then trigger the lights. The Navy uses this method, called "Magnetic Anomaly Detection," to locate submerged submarines. These devices have to be calibrated, but the vehicle used is usually the 10-ton truck the road crews work out of. In terms of magnetic mass, that’s a far cry from even the largest motorcycle. Consequently, the rider sits at the intersection…and sits…and sits…and sits…well, you get the idea.

Some states have laws that permit the rider to run the red light after a reasonable amount of time, provided the traffic is clear. I know that Missouri has such a law, and the Kansas House has passed and sent to the Senate a similar bill. The Georgia legislature is about to consider such a law.  Pennsylvania, however, does not.

Last fall, I came afoul of that lack in Somerset.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Bless Them All

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey
Flags lined the streets, some posted on flagpoles, others held by people.  After the flag-draped casket left the church, it passed between double lines of what seemed to be most of the population of Ebensburg, Pennsylvania.  Two ranks of men from the Veterans of Foreign Wars escorted the hearse through the streets.  County officials, police officers, volunteers from the Patriot Guard, and a U.S. Congressman watched as a patriot came home for the last time.
Derek Kozorosky died in uniform at the tender age of 22, a Senior Airman in the U.S. Air Force.  No, he hadn’t lost his life in Afghanistan or Iraq, but he had made the choice to serve his country and the cause of freedom.  And in my book, that’s still a hero.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Thaw Ride**

*Chicago Tribune
March 18, 2011
as "Start out slow this spring"

*Somerset Daily American
March 19, 2011
as "Start out slow this spring"

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

As February turns into March, warmer weather will begin to spread northward.  Eventually even in the arctic-like north and northeast, the snow will melt, the roads will clear, and motorcyclists will take to the road in glee to start another riding season.
But in some parts of the nation, winter still grimly hangs on.  In those areas, however, riders will be teased by the appearance of a day or two of relatively warm weather and sun.  On those days, it is hard to resist the temptation to take the bike out for a spin. 
But there are still dangers out there.
Roads are still covered with salt, sand, and whatever else the DOT uses when the snow falls.  For a motorcycle, a road surface like that can be similar to riding on a bed of ball bearings.  Traction and control is decidedly iffy, not helped by the water left by melting snow.  Also, there are still shaded places where patches of ice remain.

Monday, February 21, 2011

A February Gift

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

Winter is the longest season. At least it feels that way. The cold temperatures drive us indoors. The long hours of darkness saps our energy. The deep snow turns a simple trip to the grocery store into a major undertaking. Towards mid-February, we are worn down, and frustrated.
But once in awhile, nature seems to sense our dark mood and sends us a gift. The winds shift to the south, the clouds break, and the thermometer rises to its highest point in months. It’s not a surprise; after all, Jim, Tim, and Tony have been talking about it for at least a week. But after endless cold and incessant snow, cynicism dies hard.

We wake up, instantly aware that the house seems warmer. As we eat breakfast, the sky is lighter. Actually, the days have been getting longer since December 21st, but somehow it’s evaded our notice.

The first moment of hope arrives when we step outside. The air, while still cold lacks its usual bite. Maybe we even go back inside and swap out the arctic gear for something lighter.

At work, everyone’s mood seems unaccountably brighter. Smiles bloom unbidden. The brittle acrimony seems to have been shelved, at least for now. Even customers seem to bring a little sunshine in with them.

All morning long, the sunlight beckons through the windows, teasing and seducing. When lunch time comes, we grab our brown bag and head for the park. Stepping outside, we feel it immediately. The air is soft, and for the first time in months, we feel on our shoulders the healing warmth of the sun.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

That Bull Moose in the White House

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

Theodore Roosevelt was born in 1858, a sickly child, suffering from asthma and other ailments.  But rather than give in to his condition, he embarked on a life of vigorous robustness.

At Harvard, he was active in rowing and boxing. Upon graduating, he was given a physical exam, revealing a serious heart condition.  The doctor recommended he find a desk job.  Instead, he entered Columbia Law School.  A year later, he dropped out to run for New York Assemblyman.  His first book, a study of the Naval war of 1812, was published soon after his graduation and became a standard text throughout the Navy.

By 1884, he was already a major player in New York Republican circles.  But disillusioned by the exigencies of politics, he “retired” to a ranch he had built in Dakota Territory.  He hunted and raised cattle, writing about his activities for eastern newspapers.  As the deputy sheriff, he once escorted a group of thieves through the wilderness, going without sleep for almost two days.  Returning to New York after losing his cattle in the harsh winter of 1886-87, he ran for mayor of New York City, coming in third.  Roosevelt was appointed to the U.S. Civil Service Commission where he successfully fought the entrenched spoils system, forcing compliance with the Civil Service laws. 

In 1895, he took on another tough task.  As New York City’s Police Commissioner, he cleaned up the NYPD, reputed to be the most corrupt in America.  He was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy in the McKinley administration, taking de facto control due to the inactivity of the Secretary.  He was instrumental in preparing the Navy for the Spanish-American War and also laid the groundwork for the globe-circling “Great White Fleet” of his own administration.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Natalie Munroe and the Larger Question

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

Three days ago, nobody knew Natalie Munroe.  Now to many, she’s famous – or infamous.  For those who may have been living beneath the sea, Natalie is a teacher.  At one point in her life, she, like so many of us, felt the urge to write and authored a blog. 
Now, a blog can be many things, depending on one’s interests.  For many, it’s a living bulletin board.  Others, the chaotic canvas of random thoughts.  Some people blog about their interests, be it music, books, geology, or whatever they find interesting.  A lot of people, like me, blog about life and the musings thereof.
A blog is a contradiction.  It’s a private space for private thoughts that is also exposed to the universe. While we value our privacy, we love to see that visit counter go up. 

Natalie, responding to some of the utter ridiculousness of the education bureaucracy, wrote a post about grade cards.  In it, she complained about the “canned comments” that the administration urged teachers to use in describing the characteristics of a particular student.  These comments are familiar to anyone who has survived public school, things like “participates in class,” and “needs to work towards potential,” and other statements that achieve the lofty goal of saying absolutely nothing of value.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

My Lap Band Life - One Month In


Copyright © 2011 words only by Ralph Couey
A month ago today, I was wheeled into an operating room at Windber Medical Center in Pennsylvania.  About 40 minutes later, I came out, my life changed forever. 
I have always struggled with my weight, essentially since the age of 8.  This is something that seems to run in the family, since I’ve seen pictures of my ancestors from the depression, a solid working class clan, who wore bellies even in the midst of the worst economic disaster in our history. 
Over the years, I began to suffer from the inevitable physical consequences of obesity, including diabetes, bad joints, and heart problems.  I didn’t take retirement seriously because, frankly, I didn’t think I’d live that long.  Finally, after two heart incidents within 10 months, my wife and I decided it was time for some drastic alternatives.
In January 2010, after experiencing chest pain on the way to work, I was taken to the hospital where I received my third cardiac stent (the first two in 2003).  In March, my wife, a Registered Nurse with 30 years surgical experience, brought home some literature on a procedure called a lap band.  I was skeptical, but the stent thing had scared me pretty badly and I was ready to listen.  We went to a seminar for prospective patients put on by Dr. Kim Marley. 
The information provided was a revelation.  In 2002, I almost had a full gastric bypass done.  The operation was derailed when the insurance company pulled the authorization literally as we were on our way to the hospital.  But this was different.  A gastric bypass is a permanent thing, routing the intestine from the bottom of the stomach to a new pouch created at the bottom of the esophagus.  The lap band, conversely, is an adjustable and reversible  device, the size of which is controlled by injecting or withdrawing saline through a port attached to the inside of the patient’s skin.  Being far less complex, recovery time was relatively fast.
The program is structured such that a period of 6 months passes between the time you agree to the procedure and when it is actually done.  This is to allow time for testing and evaluation, dietetic, physical, as well as psychological counseling, giving the patient plenty of time to think.
I was still on the fence, but a second heart incident in October suddenly made the decision a no-brainer.

Monday, February 07, 2011

"Riders in the Storm"

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

Motorcyclists of all stripes look forward with great anticipation to the end of winter and the return of sunshine, warm weather, and clear roads.  Spring can be a glorious time to ride, but changing weather patterns can develop dangerous conditions.
Spring in the Midwest and high plains is a time when war breaks out between warm, moist air surging up from the Gulf of Mexico and cold, dry air making its stubborn retreat into Canada. The resulting battleground can generate strong to severe thunderstorms, some of which may spawn tornadoes.
There are different types of thunderstorms, and it’s important to know the difference.  There are isolated storms, the ones meteorologists like to call “garden variety” or “pop-up” that develop, rain themselves out and dissipate over a couple of hours or less.  The hazards of these storms are torrential rainfall, extremely limited visibility, strong wind gusts, and lightning. Most riders are familiar with these, a regular encounter on afternoon rides.  Probably the biggest danger is the heavy rain, which can induce hydroplaning, a wave of water that builds up at the front of your tires that can actually lift the bike off the road’s surface, sending the machine skidding across the asphalt.  Don’t think for one moment that rubber tires protect you from lightning strikes.  It has happened, last year in Kentucky for example.  Also, the heavy raid restricts visibility for drivers as well.  We know how hard it is for them to see us on a good day.  In a downpour, trying to peer through a windshield and wipers, it’s even more difficult.  Since these storms are isolated, i.e. fairly small in footprint, the best thing is simply to pull off and wait for them to pass, or change your route to go around them. 
A severe thunderstorm is characterized by the National Weather Service as one with 58-mph wind gusts and at least 3/4-inch hail.  I’ve been caught in two hailstorms in my riding career, and I wore those bruises for a long time.  But hail in these storms can range up to the size of golf balls or larger.  These are life-threatening, and no place for a motorcycle. 

Friday, February 04, 2011

Civil War Events: February 1861, the CSA becomes a reality

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

By February 1861, although no shots had yet been fired, both sides were marching inexorably towards war. The most important events revolved around the formal organization of the Confederate States of America and the approaching inauguration of Abraham Lincoln. For the first time in history, two separate sovereign nations occupied America.

On February 1, the secessionist convention in Texas voted 166 to 7 to secede, calling for a ratification election by the people of Texas. The next day, Texas adopted a Declaration of Causes, a document that specified the reasons that Texas would secede.

On February 4, representatives of 22 states gathered in Washington in a last ditch effort to halt the division. The effort failed. On that same day, the Convention of Seceded States met in Montgomery, Alabama. Four days later, the convention adopted a provisional constitution which officially formed the Confederate States of America. This new constitution gave the individual states more autonomy. On the 9th, Jefferson Davis was elected as the President of the CSA.

On February 5, responding to a demand from South Carolina that Fort Sumter be surrendered, the Buchanan administration announced that the fort would remain in Federal hands.

On February 9, Tennessee voters rejected secession by some 9,000 votes.

On February 11, President-elect Abraham Lincoln boarded a train in Springfield, Illinois on his journey to Washington for his inauguration. In the capitol city, the federal army manned the streets to maintain order as the Electoral College met and confirmed Lincoln’s election victory. On that same day, Jefferson Davis boarded another train in Vicksburg, Mississippi bound for Montgomery, Alabama, the first CSA capitol, for his inauguration.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Columnists: Reaching Out

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

As a columnist, I identify with that larger community identified by National Society of Newspaper Columnists President Ben Pollock as, “…feature and metro, humor and kitchen-table writers.” I have to admit that for me, it's a comfortable zone.

My degree is in Political Science, although I’m far more fascinated by political processes than political issues. When I first started my columnistic gigs 6 years ago, I began by writing some pretty pointed pieces. While they were "satisfyin’ writin’" in a visceral sort of way, the reactions were disturbing. It must be a fundamental law of the universe that people who agree with you will never write, while those who disagree will do nothing but. I never received a death threat, but the tone and tenor of those responses nevertheless left me reluctant to walk the streets at night.

I fully understand that there are those who thrive on controversy. They seek to provoke and rile. As one fellow said to me, “Of course I get them angry. Anger is readership.” This kind of issue baiting and audience manipulation I found disturbing, though not as disturbing as watching otherwise intelligent readers who didn't know they were being led around by their spleens.

The sad thing is, that’s what the climate has wrought. There are folks out there on both sides who are making large sums of money by getting and keeping people angry. Call me wimpy, if you must. But I figure that it is better to write of those things that unite us, rather than those which divide us.