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

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.”