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 31, 2016

The Universe, and Defining "Far, Far Away"

Gliese 581d orbiting it's red star
 © Space.com

Copyright © 2016
by Ralph F. Couey
Except attributed images.

It is the gift of the human curiosity and the power of the mind that allows us to look up into the night sky and think about what's out there.  People have been doing that for millions of years, always curious, always wondering.  Our literature and entertainment reflect that curiosity through the frequent use of space and alien planets in books, television and movies.  We have, vicariously at least, traveled far on voyages driven by the power of imagination.  But it goes beyond mere diversions.

One of winter's singular charms is the ability for us to view the night sky in high definition.  the stars shine bright and clear and somehow seem closer.  Last night after I returned home late from work, I took a moment to look up.  Above me hung the familiar constellation of Orion the Hunter.  My eyes traced the familiar stars, Betelgeuse and Bellatrix, Saiph and Rigel marking the corners of the formation, and the belt stars, Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka.  Below the belt was the fuzzy patch of the Orion Nebula where new stars were being born as I watched.  The constellation, as are nearly all of them, is an illusion born by perspective.  The stars are not adjacent to each other, but rather range in distances from 700 to 2,000 light years. If the Earth was a light year or so to the left or right, our constellations would look very different.  Still, I remain fascinated by the stars, and the universe in which they inhabit.

For thousands of years, we only knew the stars and the planets in our own solar family.  In recent years, however, planets outside the solar system have been discovered, some 1,906 in 1,208 other solar systems.  The first reaction most humans have to that news is, "Are they inhabited?"

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Notes From Inside The Blizzard of 2016



Copyright © 2016
by Ralph F. Couey

For a week they warned us.  The Big One was coming, the blizzard to end all blizzards.  At least until the next one, anyway.  Television meteorologists are sometimes accused of over-hype, but that was not the case for this epic weather event.

The initial predictions were in the 10 inch range.  But as the days passed, the forecasted snow totals went up.  In the last 12 hours before the first flakes began to fly, we were told to expect 20 to 30 inches.  With the forecasts came warnings from city, county, and state officials to stock up the home larders and be home or shelter in place by 5 pm Friday.  

Up till that week, Northern Virginia really hadn't seen any snow.  Oh, there had been one or two instances of flurries and snow showers, but nothing that left any trace of its passage.  Then on Wednesday, an inch of snow fell in the area.  Many counties made the decision to not pre-treat the roads, as the temperatures would cause the brine mixture to freeze.  The result was predictable.  The light snowfall became ice and 150 motorists came to grief across the DMV as a result.  This caused a great deal of apprehension.  Here we were staring down the barrel of an historic blizzard after the unreasonable chaos resulting from just an inch of snow.

Thursday was sunny, if exquisitely cold, the wind bringing a bite to the already chilly temperatures.  All day long, on radio, TV, and in the papers, the mantra continued.  Stock up, make plans, prepare to hunker down until at least Monday.  Friday dawned cloudy and chilly, and people took the morning and early afternoon to complete preparations.  The first flakes arrived here in Loudoun County around 12:30, light snow which lasted for a bit, then stopped.  The big stuff arrived about a half-hour later and immediately the grass and roads began to turn white.  Cheryl was on call overnight Friday, and the hospital management mandated that they stay the night there, rather than take the chance of not being able to answer an emergency call.  I drove her there about 5:00.  The snow had really picked up by then and was already several inches deep on the roads.  Still, we got there without too much drama.  She went in, and I went home.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Humans and Heavy Snow


From the Web
Unattributed, which is a shame
because this is so hilarious.
And so true.

Copyright © 2016
by Ralph F. Couey


There are, as you know, four seasons, each with their own beauty and challenges.  Spring brings strong spring thunderstorms and tornados, while covering the world with new life and wildflowers.  Summer is heat and humidity, and is also the time for family and games. Fall is the breathtaking colors of the trees, and the bite of the first frost.

Winter, of course, is snow.  And cold.  Short days and long nights.  But it's also a time of matchless beauty.  Who hasn't been amazed at the diamond twinkles of an untouched snowfield under a brilliant sun?  And there simply is no better time to stargaze.

Winter is different, depending on where a person lives.  If you're lucky enough to live in Florida or Southern California, then you have (comparatively) warm temps, sun, and occasionally rain.  If you're in the mountain west, its months of bitter cold and endless snowstorms.  The midwest and south have their share of snow, but the real worry are the ice storms that destroy powerlines and trees.  In the east, New England is positively polar.  Here in the Mid-Atlantic, Winter is mostly cold and occasional snow, which is usually good because so many people move here from other places, usually people who become complete idiots when there is any precipitation.  

Yesterday, the DC area had one inch of snow.  One inch.  The result was a mess of catastrophic proportions on area freeways.  Area law enforcement logged over 150 vehicle accidents during an evening commute that for some stretched into 6 hours.

But that was only the opening act.  Tomorrow, January 22nd will see the area blasted by a classic nor'easter storm.  The snow will start early afternoon Friday and will fall heavily until pre-dawn Sunday.  Forecasters in describing the storm have used the term "historic."  Snowfall forecasts are running from 12 inches on the Eastern Shore of Maryland to over 30 inches in the suburbs of Northern Virginia.  For the first time in living memory, the entire region is under a blizzard warning.  The effect on a population who couldn't handle one inch of the white stuff has been an entertaining laboratory of human misbehavior.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Hiking, Part 37



I take my heart for a walk in the woods
and listen to the magic whispers
of the old trees.
--Unknown




Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey
Except quoted and cited passages.

It was a gloomy winter day, made even more dull by the absence of any snow during this thus far anomalous winter.  The temperatures were chilly, in the upper 40's with the air still damp from overnight rains.  Not much of a day to be outside, but I was in a restless mood and I needed some time in the woods.

I had a few hours, so I chose a place relatively close to home. Bull Run Mountains Conservancy controls a patch of land within the larger 12,000 acres of the Bull Run Mountains Special Project Area.  Within those 2,500 acres, situated just north of Thoroughfare Gap, are a network of trails.  One of them ascends to the top of the ridge, called High Point, a rocky outcrop from where stunning views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the intervening valley can be experienced.  That was my target on this day, but the Conservancy had closed that particular trail for an indefinite period of repair.  Coming face to face with a wire barrier, I shrugged to myself and decided instead to explore the other trails within the area.

I left the parking area and crossed the Norfolk & Southern railroad tracks and headed into the woods.  I passed the stone walls of the Beverley Mill, partially restored.  A bit further, I came upon the remains of a structure identified on the map as the "upper mill."



Friday, January 15, 2016

The Affection for the Past


Copyright © 2016
by Ralph F. Couey

"Nostalgia is a useless, futile thing because it is a
longing for something that is permanently lost."
--Dave Nicholls

It catches me in my most unguarded moments, sweeping me away on a wave of yearning; I become temporarily a prisoner of a snippet of memory made sweet by a selective form of recollection.  In a present fraught with stress and overwork hunted by a future whose strongest attribute is uncertainty, my mind is taken over by a scene, a random event from the past that seems so much more peaceful...and safe...than I now feel.

Humans have the capacity for memory storage, a seemingly vast collection of both the important and the trivial; the taste of certain meal or the feel of the perfect summer day.  We remember passwords and team rosters, but sometimes struggle over where the car keys went.  Still, the brain is a remarkable instrument.

Within my brain reside memories of my life; events and people mainly.  But once in a while, it will dredge up a brief random recollection which brings a sad kind of smile and a silent eulogy for what was.  The present is a busy one, every hour of every day filled with a demand or sense of duty for seemingly every other minute.  I can, thanks to memory, go back instantly to a spring day, my 7th birthday when my parents gave me two boxes to open, both containing the kind of gifts dear to the heart of a boy, a moving van and a fire truck.  Sometimes looking at a picture from the distant past, I am at a loss to recall that particular moment.  But this one I remembered.  The above photo was taken by my Dad as I played with my new toys, momentarily distracted by something on a black-and-white television.  Probably The Jetsons or Top Cat.  That day I remember as a good day, because I was off from school, I had the whole summer before me, and a couple of snazzy trucks to fill those hours.  I remember running them around the carpet, making engine and siren noises, and just plain having fun. 

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Homelessness, and Finding Hope

Blaisdell Park, Pearl City, Hawaii
From Barry@mypearlcity.com

Copyright © 2016 by Ralph F. Couey
Written material only.

It was the 5th day of my 10-day stay in Hawaii.  I woke up early to go for a run.  I had been chugging up the long hill of Waimano Home Road for a couple of days, so I decided to seek an easier route.  I drove down the hill to Blaisdell Park, what used to be called Pearl Harbor Park, perched along the shoreline of East Loch in Pearl Harbor.  There was an asphalt trail there that runs just over 5 miles from Aiea Bay Park to the Honolulu Police Academy in Waipahu.  On my previous visits, I had made frequent use of the trail, mainly for walking.  My memory of the trail is mainly of illegal trash dumps along the waterfront fighting for visual space with the magnificent views of the harbor.  Of course, it's been 11 years since my last visit, so the area has changed.

I pulled into the parking lot at Blaisdell Park, and after stretching, headed for the trail.  The first thing that caught my eye was a line of tents between the trail and the water.  As I came closer, I realized that this park had become one of many of the homeless encampments on O'ahu.  

I headed west towards the Navy base, and as I ran, I saw that there were encampments almost all along the trail, essentially wherever there was space to pitch a tent.  Remembering that this was where trash used to be dumped, now people are dumped.

Homelessness is a national problem, but an especially acute one for Honolulu.  In June 2015, the City conducted a point-in-time survey of the camps and concluded that there were just under 5,000 homeless people on O'ahu.  This equates to a rate of 487 per million, the highest in the United States.

There are several elements that drive this crises.  Hawaii in general, and Honolulu in particular, is one of the most expensive places in the world to live.  It is estimated that a family of 4 requires a monthly income (after taxes) of just under $4,000.  Rents run from around $1,600 to more than $5,000, and what is available at the low end would embarrass a lawnmower, let alone a family.  Because almost all the food has to be shipped from the Mainland (as the locals call the lower 48) it is shockingly expensive.  Put simply, living here is just as expensive as Manhattan.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Hiking, Part 36

Aiea Ridge



Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey
Words and pictures.

For the last hike on this trip, I chose the Aiea Valley.  This hike follows a contour just below the ridge line, so takes you above the valley, not in it.  As it turned out, that's a good thing.

The trailhead starts at the entrance to Keaiwa Heiau State Park.  A Heiau is a sacred place to the Hawaiian people, usually a burial ground.  After parking, we found the trail and headed up.  The character of the terrain and vegetation reminded me a lot of the Appalachian trail.  The trail cut into the hillside and flanked by a forest of conifer and deciduous trees.  The trail surface was a mixed bag, sometimes dry and fast, sometimes wet and slow, and at one point just downright boggy.  But a fun trail, nonetheless.


HIking, Part 35




Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey
Words and pictures

After the somewhat scary Wiliwilinui hike, we turned to an easier trek.  Ka'ena Point is the northwest tip of O'ahu.  If you can envision O'ahu as a kind of ship, Ka'ena is the tip of the bow.  The point is not accessible by road unless you own a serious trail-rated 4WD vehicle with plenty of ground clearance.  You can either start at the end of Kamehameha Highway, from the Waianae coast, or from the North Shore off Farrington Highway.  We took that starting point.  Arriving early around sunrise, we were able to find a good place to park.  There were a few campers and surf casters, but not many people at all.

The hike route is actually a service road, but in name only.  It starts smooth, but soon fills with washouts and deep ruts where vehicles have dug deep holes in the surface.  There are also places of deep mud, requiring the hiker to move to the edge.



It takes a bit less than three miles along this path, but the scenery is magnificent, with the ocean to the left and the steep mountains to the right.

Hiking, Part 34



Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey
Words and pictures




Most people go to Hawaii for the beaches.  Having lived there for a number of years, I am pretty well beached out.  When my wife started planning for the biennial trip back to see her family, I as usual resisted going, citing expense, time. etc., etc., etc.  But one evening she started telling me the hiking she used to do when she was young.  In my mind, the recollections came back of looking at those razor-edged Ko'olau and Waianae mountains, and I conceded she might have a good idea.  I invested in a book, "Hikers Guide to O'ahu" by  Stuart M. Ball, Jr., containing some 52 hikes, ranging from the ridiculously easy to the easily ridiculous.  After pouring over the book for a month, I chose three hikes, a ridge hike, a shore hike, and a valley hike, hitting one each of the types available.

The first hike we took the day after we arrived, the only day when our youngest daughter and her husband would be there.  I chose the 5-mile Wiliwilinui ridge hike, on the strength of the view from the top of the mountain from which one could see two sides of the island.


Being primarily an Appalachian Trail day hiker, I was pretty sure I could handle whatever Hawaii could throw at me.  I was wrong.


A tropical island has several distinct weather patterns, based on the interaction with trade winds, mountains, and ocean moisture.  It could be sunny and warm at one location, and rainy, foggy, and cool someplace else.  I failed to take that into account.


The trail head is accessed through a rather high-rent neighborhood called Waialae Iki V, guarded by a gate house from which you must obtain a hiking pass.  The steep drive up to the gate provides million-dollar views, exceeded only by the multi-million-dollar residences.


Looking at the back side of Diamond Head.

Imagine waking up to this every morning.

Vacation

Photo © 2015 by Ralph F. Couey

Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey

"A vacation is what you take
when you can no longer take
what you've been taking."
--Earl Wilson

We all work hard.  That's a given, and not just at our jobs.  The range of responsibilities that adults shoulder range from bringing home the bacon to caring for children and in some cases, aging parents.  Over time, those burdens weigh ever heavier on us, creating stress that cuts into the state of our health.  Which is why vacations were invented.  This is that precious (paid) time off that we earn from employers after toting their barges and lifting their bales for an entire year.


What we do with that time varies as well.  Some of us prefer the so-called "stay-cations," taking time off, but staying close to home.  Others plan trips ranging from forays to the local mountains or lakes, to epic overseas adventures.  What we do on those trips depends on the personality of those involved.  Some plan every minute of the two weeks with tours, activities, parties, concentrating on having fun.  Others spend the time unplugged from everyone and everything, emptying the brain and relaxing the body and spirit.  I'm in this last group to a degree, but not completely.