About Me

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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 61 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

Sunday, January 27, 2013

This Thing Called "Love"*

*Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, February 11, 2010
as "Feb. 14 - A Time to Celebrate This Crazy Little Thing Called Love"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

It’s an oft-spoken truism that while men marry women for what they are, women marry men for what they can make out of us. When I look at my wife, I still see the breath-taking girl I fell for 32 years ago. When she looks at me, she sees (and she’s actually said this) a “work in progress.”

I don't consider that a bad thing; I'm excited to be married to someone who remains convinced that every day I can be more than I was the day before.  Her faith in me has never wavered, even during those times when I had lost all faith in myself.

Marriage is a relational laboratory; the virtual Petri dish where two independent people learn how to be co-dependent. The first seven years can be explosive as both partners engage in a sort of emotional “push-me pull-you,” trying to pull the other in their direction. Through this process, both learn the value of compromise; that the best solutions often exist in the middle.

Through it all is this thing we call “love.”

The Possibilities of Life and the Prison of Physics


M-31 Andromeda from Astronomy Picture of the Day 1/24/2008

Copyright © 2009 by Ralph Couey
Written content only

Like millions of others, I often look to the night sky, fascinated by the possibilities of what lies out there. However, at times I also find myself idly wondering whether in that sky there might be someone else standing on another planet some impossibly long distance away looking back.

The latest estimate for the size of the known universe is around 150 billion light years across, containing somewhere between 100 billion and 500 billion galaxies, each probably containing between 200 billion to 400 billion stars. Certainly amongst that blizzard of zeroes, there has to be at least one other intelligent technological civilization.

In short, do I believe there are other intelligent species in the universe?

Yes.

Do I think we’re being visited by aliens in flying saucers?

No.

The physical laws of the universe, as we know them, make interstellar journeys impossible, impractical, and even pointless. The speed of light, warp drive notwithstanding is a barrier impossible to cross. Any physical object, be it human or molecule, converts to pure energy at the speed of light. Not a bad way to travel, all things considered. But understand that there’s no way to be reassembled at the end of that journey.

We could travel very close to the speed of light, but physics makes it pointless.

Scientists studying the behavior of subatomic particles in an accelerator, discovered that as they approached the speed of light, their rate of decay slowed tremendously. That remarkable find led to an understanding called “time dilation.” What that means, essentially, is that if you were on a starship that was traveling at 90% of the speed of light, time for you would slow down enormously, while back home, clocks would continue to tick along at their normal rate. Dr. Carl Sagan in his ground-breaking program “Cosmos” said that time dilation would make a round trip to the center of our Milky Way galaxy doable within a human lifetime.

Such a ship could make that trip, a distance of about 50,000 light years, in about 42 years, as time would be measured aboard the ship. That’s assuming the crew would survive the hard radiation, asteroids, million-degree clouds of gas, and each other. Unfortunately, for those of us left behind subject to the clocks here on earth, about 60,000 years would have passed, the time that separates modern humans from Neanderthals. Even if our intrepid explorers survived the trip, their return would become an encounter between two completely alien cultures.

Of course, that’s assuming there would still be life on earth. Asteroids, comets, gamma-ray bursts, super volcanoes, climate change, and what we could do to each other are all very real possibilities that would cause the end of life as we know it.

Homo sapiens is not the first dominant species on this planet, and almost certainly won’t be the last.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Dr. King and the Revolution of the Heart


 
 
Copyright © 2013 by Ralph F. Couey
Written content only
 
Today, we celebrate a singular holiday.  Out of all those that speckle the calendar, this one is unusual in that it is the only one specifically named for one American.  But in meaning, it is much more.
 
Dr. Martin Luther King was born on January 15, 1929.  He grew to be a minister, earning a PhD from Boston University.  He possessed that singular gift of lyrical oratory, giving life to mere words, delivering them not just to the ears, but to the heart.
 
The American civil rights movement, way overdue, was gathering steam.  In 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man.  She was arrested and convicted of disorderly conduct.  What followed was the Montgomery Bus Boycott which lasted 381 days, cost the bus line some 80% of its revenue and only ended when a federal court ordered the bus system to be desegregated.  Dr. King led this protest and brought his name into national prominence.  It was not an easy victory, however.  At it’s height, King’s house was bombed.
 
The bus boycott proved to be the turning point.  Dr. King became the face and the voice of civil rights.  
 
His development included influence by theologian and educator Howard Thurman.  Thurman introduced the young minister to the writings of Mohandas Gandhi, who had turned non-violent protest into a potent weapon against British colonialism.  King, who visited the Indian leader’s birthplace, was profoundly moved by Gandhi’s story.  On his final day in India, he said, "Since being in India, I am more convinced than ever before that the method of nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for justice and human dignity.”
 
Back in the United States, King, as leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Council, began to lead a series of non-violent protests.  He and thousands of others marched for African-American’s right to vote, desegregation, labor rights among other issues.  Throughout the south, sit-ins were held at lunch counters that banned blacks.  The protests were non-violent, but directly confrontational, which led to violent reactions by southern whites.  
 
In 1963, the SCLC launched a campaign against segregation and economic injustice in Birmingham, Alabama.  Protests were widespread, but the turning point was when the Birmingham Police Department, led by Eugene “Bull” Connor, turned fire hoses and police dogs loose on the protesters.  Some responded, helped by bystanders who apparently decided they’d seen enough.  The campaign was a success.  The signs of Jim Crow were taken down, and blacks were allowed more access to public places.  King said later, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
 

Saturday, January 12, 2013

"The House is On Fire! What Do We Do?" A Homeowners Survival Guide to Disaster


Copyright © 2008 by Ralph F. Couey
All rights for reprint or reuse reserved by the author.
 
In the summer of 1996, our home caught on fire.  The experience of that night is permanently etched in our memories.  Because we knew what to do, our family, including our pets, got out of the house without injury.  But the days and weeks after that disasterous event were full of moments when we were close to being overwhelmed.  We had no idea what to do, who to call, or how to plan.  I wrote this planning to get it published as a helpful brochure.  Rather than wait for the uncertain tides of publishing companies, I decided to post it here so anyone who needs the benefit of our experience can have it.
 
 
 “Putting the Word “Fire” in “Fireworks”
 
July 3, 1996.  A typically hot and humid day for a Missouri summer.  The sun had set and we had just cleaned up after exploding our ration of fireworks on the driveway and in the street in front of our suburban home.  The kids were upstairs watching television and I went down to our basement bedroom to shower and get ready for bed.  My wife, a Registered Nurse, was at work, having been called in to do an emergency surgery.   
 
I had just stepped into the shower when my youngest began banging on the bathroom door.  I responded with some small irritation.  She was, in the words of her siblings, a drama queen, susceptible to fits of extreme excitement over relatively minor things.  I shut off the water and went to the door to listen.  She yelled that a neighbor had come to tell us that our attached garage was on fire.  I hurriedly dressed and ran upstairs.  My daughter, in her panic, had opened the garage door.  The garage was blazing from the inside and the fire, now supplied with a fresh burst of air was literally exploding in ferocity.  I ran back inside and yelled at the kids to evacuate and to take our pets with them.  I ran to the phone and called 911.  I then made a quick tour of the house, making sure that everyone was out.  By this time, I could feel the heat coming off the living room wall next to the garage.  Realizing that time was running out, I left the house, seeing the relieved looks on the faces of my children.  Outside, the heat was very intense.  I saw that my car was parked on the driveway and remembering that I had just filled the tank with gasoline, I quickly moved the car out onto the street.  I was just in time, since the plastic headlight lenses were already scorched.  A neighbor brought over a 50-lb CO2 extinguisher.  I activated it and began to move towards the fire. But the intense heat prevented me from getting close enough for the fog to have any real effect.  I retreated to the other side of the street and stood among the growing crowd of my neighbors and watched our home burn.  
 
The fire department responded quickly, although it seemed forever before we began to hear the sound of sirens coming down Route K.  The trucks pulled up in front of the house, deployed their hoses and went to work.  They attacked the blaze intelligently and swiftly and it seemed that in a surprisingly short time, they had control of things.  The fire was extinguished and to my surprise, while the two-car garage was a pile of smoking ash, the house had apparently been largely saved.
 
We were lucky.  With me downstairs in the shower and the kids mesmerized by the television, if our neighbor hadn’t been walking his dog and seen the fire through the garage windows, there’s no telling how far along the fire would have gotten before one of us inside would have noticed.  Another thing that saved us was that the garage had been an add-on to the house by the previous owners.  As such, instead of attaching the garage to the house, they built an additional wall.  That double-wall between the garage and the house, and the lack of any direct access (door) from the garage into the living room, kept the fire confined for an additional space of time, enough for us to escape.  In addition, our barbecue grill was sitting on the back deck with a freshly-filled 20 lb propane tank, less than 20 feet from the blaze.  Had that tank exploded, the firefighters assured me, the force of the blast would likely have leveled most of the house and would have put at risk any human within 300 feet.
 
“Shock and Awe”

We stayed with friends that night and the next day, July 4, we drove back over to our house.  Rounding the corner onto our street, the bright sunlight revealed the extent of the damage.  The garage, of course was gone, as was the large satellite dish that had sat on the roof.  The double wall had protected the house, but the fire had eaten through into the attic space and consumed most of the roof.  I belatedly noticed that the trees in front and back had sustained some damage as well.  With no small amount of trepidation, we unlocked the door and went inside.  

Civil War: Events of January 1863


On New Year’s Day, the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect.  On that same day, a naval action, the Battle of Galveston was fought.  Two Confederate ships sailed from Houston to Galveston aiming to engage the Union fleet in Galveston harbor.  One of the southern ships, the CSS Neptune, was severely damaged and eventually sank the other ship, the Bayou City, managed to capture one of the Union vessels.  During the action, the USS Westfield went aground.  The Union commander, William Renshaw, ordered the vessel’s destruction rather than allowing it to fall into enemy hands.  But the explosives went off early, killing Renshaw and several other Union troops.  Ashore, the Union troops saw the explosion and assumed that the Union fleet was surrendering, and therefore laid down their arms.  The rest of the Union fleet withdrew to New Orleans.  This action temporarily lifted the Union blockade and the Confederacy maintained control of this vital port for the remainder of the war.
 
January 2nd saw General William T. Sherman abandon his attempt to take Vicksburg, MS.
 
On the 4th, Major General McClernand began to move up the Arkansas River.  Also on that day, President Lincoln and General Halleck order Grant to rescind Special Order 11, which had expelled Jews from Tennessee, Mississippi, and Kentucky.  Also on the 4th, the USS Quaker City and USS Memphis seized the Confederate blockade runner Mercury while on its way to the Bahamas.
 
January 9-11 saw the Battle of Fort Hindman, also known as Arkansas Post.  Downriver from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, the Southerners had constructed a large fort on a bluff 25 feet above the Arkansas River.  The fort’s purpose was to block the Union Army’s route to Little Rock.  Manned by 5,000 troops, mostly Texas Cavalry, was in a poor state due to disease and a tenuous supply line.  President Lincoln had granted General John McClernand permission to begin an offensive against Vicksburg from Memphis.  McClernand, a highly ambitious man, viewed this as a way to attain both military glory and political gain.  His plan lay at direct odds with the plans of General Grant, Commander of the Tennessee Army.  McClernand ordered General William T. Sherman’s troops to join his in the assault, even though Sherman was under Grant’s command.  With this combined force of 33,000, he attacked Fort Hindman instead of Vicksburg as he had promised Lincoln.  On January 9th, Union troops began landing and moving upriver. The next day, Admiral David Porter moved his fleet of ironclads into position and began bombarding the fort.  Porters ships completed an envelopment, and with McClernand’s ground attack, forced the Confederates to surrender.  The Southerners lost a fourth of their total number of troops in Arkansas, and was the largest Confederate surrender until the final capitulation in 1865.  Union losses were high and the victory did not contribute materially to the eventual capture of Vicksburg in July.  Because he had lied to the President and disobeyed the orders of all of his superiors, McClernand was recalled and Grant assumed personal command of the Vicksburg campaign.
 
On January 14th, the CSS Alabama sank the USS Hatteras off Galveston.
 
January 20-22 saw the infamous “Mud March” as General Ambrose Burnside fruitlessly marched the Army of the Potomac through the sludge and slime of Wintertime Virginia in a vain attempt to find another crossing of the Rappahannock.  Three days later, Lincoln fired Burnside and replaced him with General Joseph Hooker.  Called “Fightin’ Joe”, his subsequent failures led a contemptuous Robert E. Lee to refer to him as “Mr. F. J. Hooker.”
 
Also on January 25th, Union forces withdrew from Corinth, MS where they had been ordered to protect southbound Mississippi shipping.
 
On the 26th, Lincoln sent a personal letter to General Hooker, warning him that even though Hooker had been given the command, Lincoln knew that Hooker had “thwarted him (Burnside) as much as you could, in which you did a great wrong to the country and to a most meritorious and honorable brother officer.”
 
January 27th saw another in a string of Naval assaults on Fort McAllister, GA.
 
On January 31st, the Confederate ironclads Chicora and Palmetto State raided the Union blockade of Charleston Harbor.  Some Union ships were damaged, but the blockade held.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Diabetes and the Curse of the Sweet Tooth*

 
Copyright 2013 by Ralph F. Couey
Written content only
 
*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
January 14, 2013
as "Sweet Offerings Sour Dining Experience"
 
We're all familiar with the scenario. We've just finished a sumptuous dinner, three courses of artistry and flavor that has filled us to the point that some are surreptitiously loosening their belt.  We are sure that no room remains in the stomach.  We may not have to eat again for two days.
 
 
Then a shiny silver cart is rolled up to the table.  Across it's top are arrayed a dozen or so plates and bowls containing things like cake, fudge, ice cream, or any one of a hundred other temptations.  Suddenly, we find there is room after all.
 
But not for all of us. 
 
For those afflicted with Diabetes, we have to turn away, ignore the plaintive cries of our sweet tooth and decline the offering.  We can't help but feel deprived, not of the food itself, but the pure pleasure of sweetness on the tongue.
 
Diabetes is a growing problem  In the United States. The American Diabetes Association estimates that 25.8 million people have the disease, a figure that includes nearly 8 million undiagnosed cases.  That's about 8 percent of the population, but there are also some 80 million who are termed pre-diabetic, whose blood sugar counts are high but don't yet exceed the gateway count of 120.  Worldwide, the World Health Organization estimates that 366 milllion are afflicted, a figure that is expected to reach 552 million by 2030.
 

Monday, January 07, 2013

Carpe Diem and the Calendar




"Write it on your heart
that every day
is the best day in the year."
--Ralph Waldo Emerson

Copyright © 2013 by Ralph Couey
Except identified quotes.
 
We're a week into the New Year, with all the hoopla and madness of the holiday season behind us.  Christmas lights are going dim and coming down, the trees undecorated.  The boxes of holiday cheer are being packed up and stored again until next December.  Life is returning to normal, albeit with some new possessions to while away the hours of the rest of winter.
 
For many of us, we have acquired some resolutions, based on some perceived flaws or failures in the past.  And like most other years, most of those resolutions, made with such fervor and promise in the early hours of 2013, will die a slow death over the coming weeks.  Life will go on; we will go on without much dramatic change.
 
It's a sad thing to see those promises wither every year.  It's bad enough when we break them to others, but it's far worse when we lie to ourselves.
 
As I've written before, I don't make resolutions until spring.  The return of life to the world around me also sparks a kind of rebirth inside myself, the kind of budding optimism that makes change much easier to accomplish, at least for me. 
 
A calendar is a handy item for keeping track of things.  The year is divided up into weeks, months, and days all laid out in a handy grid format.  Within those squares we jot notes to ourselves about meetings, appointments, birthdays and anniversaries.  It's a kind of short-hand biography, and can provide and interesting window into the past.  In the process of moving, I found a pocket calendar of mine from 1983.  I was in the Navy at the time, and the entries brought back memories of those full days, from mundane checklist items to intriguing remarks like, "Pierside Hong Kong, 13:30."