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

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Last Real Team

Eric Hosmer's mad...no, insane dash home
and what was the penultimate moment of the 2015 World Series.
© 2015 Newsday

Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey
Written content only.

It was magic.  There's no other way to describe that moment on a cool November night in New York City when Wade Davis blew a third strike past the buckling knees of the Mets' Wilmer Flores.  The Royals, after coming so close the year before, and coming so far from the previous 30 years, had been crowned baseball's World Champions.

To say that the win produced a cascade of celebration would be to labor in understatement.  While Kansas City rocked in joyous emotions, it was remarkable to observe that this midwestern metropolis wasn't the only place where the cheers could be heard.  This team, marked by such pluck, courage, and unity, had earned a following across the nation, and across the world.  Everyone remembers the Korean superfan and Seoul-mate Sungwoo Lee who expressed such a deep long distance ardor, that he was actually flown to Kansas City for a visit.  That summer, my wife and I were in France, and during that whole visit, my Royals cap inspired a host of smiles and spontaneous conversation from Parisians.  

It isn't hard to discover why that team was so popular.  Their youth, unity, that never-say-die attitude were all elements to that wide acclaim.  But I think the thing that really got to people was that these guys were having fun!  Baseball was still a game to them, and behind those infectious grins everyone could see the 9-year-old that still lived within.

2016 was a disappointment, but understandable.  Any team in any sport that parks five all-stars on the disabled list for extended periods of time is going to suffer.  But that passion never left them.  Alex Gordon's wrist certainly bothered him more than that titular Sgt. Rock would ever admit.  And close to the end of the season, it was painful to watch Lorenzo Cain try to swing a bat with one hand.  But through the swarm of injuries, that desire, that love of the game never wavered.  Even though they missed the playoffs, to Royals Nation, they were still our champions.

Change, as I've often remarked, is the only consistent thing in life. Even the game of baseball eventually becomes the cold, calculating business of baseball.  The economics of a small market team guarantees that the core group would not stay in Kansas City forever.  The days when a George Brett and a Frank White could reliably spend their entire playing career wearing the same uniform are pretty much gone.

Lorenzo Cain, Salvador Perez, Danny Duffy, Alcides Escobar, Eric Hosmer, Jarrod Dyson, and Mike Moustakas pretty much started their careers at about the same time.  Coming up through the minors, they played on the same teams, won championships along the way.  So when they got to the majors, they were bonded in a way very few baseball teammates have ever been.  In fact, they don't refer to themselves as mere teammates, but rather the more intimate "brothers." That closeness created a clubhouse culture that embraced equally everyone who wore the uniform. By their own earnest statements, there were no stars, in the usual sense.  Every one of them were equally valuable. In bonding with each other, they also bonded with the fans.  Kansas City fans are a breed apart, thinking of these players as family. That same relationship also exists with the players from the NFL franchise that works on the other end of the Truman Sports Complex. Players who have spent time here have many times commented on that special relationship.

When I ordered my Royals jersey, I was in a quandary as to which player I would honor.  In the end, I decided to honor them all.  On the back of my jersey, it says  "All 25."

But next year, 2018, looks like the end of this run.  Jarrod Dyson, a fan favorite, is already gone to Seattle.  Wade Davis, who closed games with the finality of a sarcophagus lid has also departed.  Greg Holland is in Denver.  And this is only the beginning.  In what is likely to cause the worst pain, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, and Eric Hosmer are likely to seek, and sign big deals with wealthier teams.  Eric Hosmer, even though some doubt his offensive numbers, would be a terrible loss.  He emerged as the clubhouse leader, the team whip-cracker, the go-to interview for the big networks, and the familiar public face this franchise has lacked since Mr. Brett retired.  As the Kansas City Star award-winning columnist (and the Hemingway of the prairies) Sam Mellinger has noted, if the Royals are not competitive at the trade deadline, the exodus could even predate the last part of the season. 

For fans, it would not be so much a departure as a divorce; it will hurt that much.  I was sad when Tony Gonzalez left the Chiefs.  But I understood why.  I will be sad when this incredible group begins to disintegrate.  But again, I will understand.  Not that it will ease my pain.

The career of a pro athlete is short.  One need only watch some of the stars of the 70's and 80's gimp around to understand why.  Athletes make careers out of playing through injuries, tearing their bodies up until very little remains.  Even though they make enormous sums of money (compared to most of us) that money is going to have to sustain them and their families for at least 50 years of their post-career lives, not to mention paying the medical bills for those accumulated and unhealed injuries.  Besides, one of the aspects of being in America is the right to be paid what the market will bear for your services.  We grumble about that, but come on.  Have we ever had 30,000 people pay money to watch us do our jobs?

Time moves ever forward, leaving behind memories both sad and sweet.  Such is the case with these Royals.  We were promised great things when this group matured, and that happened as predicted.  Two consecutive World Series, after three decades of very forgettable baseball. Honestly, however, we were all hoping they would stick around for a just a little while longer.

The future of this franchise is a bit unsure.  There are very good ballplayers waiting in the wings for their chance to step on that emerald green stage, but it will be different.  In fact, it won't ever be the same.

For those of us alive, awake, and aware, we were fortunate to be able to watch this group of brothers do something electrifyingly wonderful.  They created magic on the field and in our hearts.  For a brief, precious moment in time, we shared that magic and it changed our lives.  Their hard work and success brought pride and respect to Kansas City.  It was suddenly okay to wear the ballcaps, t-shirts, and jerseys, and not fear being laughed at, especially by those infuriating red-clad snobs from the Mississippi side of the state.  For us, those memories will forever be etched in our minds and hearts.  In our gray years, we will tell our wide-eyed grandchildren barely believable stories of a team that regularly snatched victory not just from the jaws of defeat, but sometimes even from its gastrointestinal tract.

It is said that those Royals rewrote the paradigm for Major League Baseball.  Usually the talk will be about the shut-down bullpen, or the death-by-a-thousand-cuts offense, or the hermetically-sealed defense.  But the paradigm that was really changed was in the basic concept of "team." It wasn't just a group of players who wore the same uniform, but a family of young men who were totally invested in each other; who understood and accepted that it could be a different hero every night, even someone like Christian Colon, who hadn't stepped in a batter's box for over a month, but would still deliver a scintillating base hit that changed our baseball world forever.

This was a very brief, but very special time for Kansas City and the world-wide legion of Royals fans.  Because of the nature of these players and the way they grew up together, it's not likely that such a time will ever happen again.  But it did. It happened in front of our eyes, giving us all a moment in time we will never forget.

We saw the magic; we felt the magic.  And we shared the love, 800,000 strong at the victory parade.  No matter how much time passes, none of us will ever forget this team, and the incredible ride upon which they took us.  

We will, in our conversations and recollections down the generations always honor this singular group of Kansas City Royals, not just as World Champions, but as the last pure and perfect team in the history of Major League Baseball.

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Challenge of the Final Frontier

NASA, Apollo 8

Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey
Written content only

Curiosity.  Wonder.  That persistent desire to know the unknown, to answer the unanswerable.  It is a fundamental part of our human makeup, whether a scientist or explorer, or any of the rest of us taking a stroll around a new neighborhood, visiting a new store, or shopping center;  perhaps vacationing to somewhere we've never been. However the desire manifests itself, it is a link, perhaps even a bond that connects people across culture, nation, and ideology.

From the first stirrings of conscience, humans have ever looked to the skies in wonder.  At first, the sky and its myriad points of light was populated with figures risen from imagination; omnipotent, angry creatures with unimaginable power who required unquestioned fealty and sacrifice in hopes of staving off their destructive revenge. Eventually, science replaced gods with objects, stars, galaxies, clouds of gas and dust, and now we know with certainty, other planets.

We don't yet know if there is life out there, although some of the exoplanets offer tantalizing possibilities.  Our current limitations of physics and the human lifespan keep them at a frustrating arm's length.

A host of galaxies from the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, Hubble Space Telescope

But perhaps that is not such a bad thing.  As a species, we insist on being at war with each other, whether the weapons are words or bullets.  Until we learn how to get along with each other, we have no business bothering anybody else. The stark reality is our refusal to let go of these conflicts means there is no common voice for the people of planet Earth.  Who among the contentious nations, cultures, or religions truly speaks for humanity?

So while the distant stars remain out of reach, we still live in a solar system full of unanswered questions.  What drives the 11-year cycle of our star?  Is Mercury worth the investment of time and resources to explore, or is it, as Spock would judge, "essentially,a great rock in space"?  What caused the runaway greenhouse effect on Venus, and could it be reversed?

Mars, ever the hopeful mystery.  Did it once harbor life?  Could it ever host life again, albeit transplanted life?  Could the failed planets of the asteroid belt hold resources that  could make life better here on Earth?  Are Jupiter and Saturn truly failed stars?  What are the dynamics fueling the massive weather systems in those atmospheres?  And what lies beneath all that gas?  And what about the dozens of moons orbiting those gas giants?  What surprises await us there?

Why does the ice giant, Uranus, alone of all the planets, roll around the sun on its side? What lies beneath those clouds, and those of its fellow ice giant, Neptune?

And what of poor, demoted Pluto?  Why is its orbit tilted compared to the rest of the sun's family?  With the recent visit of the New Horizons probe, Pluto has been transformed from a mysterious telescopic blob to an actual place, and an entirely new list of questions.

Beyond lies the Kuiper Belt, thought to be home to tens of thousands of other dwarf worlds, comets and asteroids.  Beyond even that is the hypothetical mass of billions of icy objects called the Oort Cloud that lies between one and two light years from the sun.  Is it there that the answers to questions about the formation of the solar system can finally be found?

Space Facts/Laurine Moreau

Clearly, there are enough mysteries in this local neighborhood to keep us occupied for at least a thousand years.  That is where we should focus our efforts.

The ever-growing clamor to visit the newly-discovered exoplanets is something that will have to wait, and not for the required global unity.  The fastest spacecraft yet built by humans would still take some 17,000 years to travel just one light year.  Since the closest planets with the highest possibility of life are around 20 light years distant, a manned journey of 340,000 years is simply out of the question.

Supposing for a moment that humanity decided to explore our solar system.  What kind of explorer would be required?

Such a person would have to be someone who would cheerfully forfeit a normal lifetime on Earth.  Such missions would require an absence of 10 to 20 years.  Their focus, energies, and enthusiasm would always be directed outwards, without the emotional baggage of homesickness.

They would have to be willing to divorce themselves from Earthbound concerns, to include politics, culture, and even religion.  The study of Earth sciences has become hopelessly infused with politics, either through association or funding.  There are no answers, or finding that can't be traced back to somebody's political agenda.  Since there are no Earth-like planets or objects in this star system, those studies are largely irrelevant, so those eternally conflicting arguments would have to be left behind.  Answers would thus be based on fact and evidence, not on ideology.

But it goes beyond politics.  These explorers would have to be of the mindset that they don't represent separate nations or cultures, but all humanity.  By the same token, the scientists back on Earth receiving that data and discoveries would need to be possessed of complete objectivity and devoid of political influence and ambition.  That, in itself, may be the most difficult barrier between the truth of what is, and the political fantasy of what is supposed to be.

Earth and the moon from Saturn. 

The technical challenges are daunting enough.  A spacecraft with a propulsion system which would either not require refueling, or would have a fueling resource to be visited from time to time.  Once outside Earth's protective magnetic field, the craft would have to be able to protect its fragile human cargo from deadly radiation and be able to absorb or deflect impacts of dust and rocks, that could hole the ship and cause the loss of its atmosphere.

Kerbal Space Program on Twitter

The ship would have to be large, not only to hold everything, but be able to provide at least a modicum of privacy and solitude for individual crew members.  To look at the Orion craft, essentially an upsized Apollo spacecraft, which is supposed to take astronauts on a several month long journey to Mars, one realizes that it had to be designed by someone with absolutely no grounding in the dynamics of human interaction.  In short, an engineer.


The equipment would require double or even triple redundancy, along with the facilities and materials to carry out complex repairs.

Of course, there are the obvious logistical needs of food, water, clean clothes, and a fully-equipped surgical sick bay, along with the physicians and nurses to run it.

The habitat portion of the ship would need to rotate, generating gravity that would prevent the loss of bone and muscle we already know occurs on long-duration missions.  In that space, would have to be ways for the crew to entertain themselves during their off duty hours.

There are hundreds, if not thousands of other requirements which I have neither education nor skills to anticipate.  But what I do possess is hope; hope that such hurdles can be overcome, that the right kind of ship could be built, manned by the right kind of people.  The we could truly "boldly go" into the deep waters of space, seeking and finding the answers to those as-yet unanswered questions.

It is the only way the human species can grow.  And survive.

Monday, March 06, 2017

"The Big Short" and The Curse of Earned Cynicism

The U.S. housing market in 2008.
(US Atomic Energy Commission/Department of Energy)

Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey
Written Content Only

Movies come out by the dozens every year, some good, most so-so, some which were not worth the effort.  But once in a while, a film is released that touches a nerve, opens some eyes, and changes the way the world is viewed.

For me, such was The Big Short, the cinematic treatment of Michael Lewis' book of the same name which recounted the factors leading up to the devastation of the U.S. housing market in 2008.  

Investment banking, in fact Wall Street in general is something of an esoteric field, rife with its own language purposefully designed to keep from the rest of us what is truly going on with the markets, and our money.  The story is one of shocking incompetence, willful blindness, collusion, and an absolute contempt for the welfare of the public at large.  If you haven't seen it, you should, if you have any kind of institutional retirement account.  Especially if you were one of the faceless millions who were financially raped in 2008.

I'll try to briefly summarize, but it is a complex subject and for full understanding, you need to read Lewis' book and then see the movie, several times.

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Finding Passion in Words of Freedom

From Monticello.org

Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey

Of the many things we Americans take for granted, at the top, or close to it, are what are called the founding documents, those incredible collections of wisdom that established our country, and to a large extent, have defined us as a people.  Not to date myself unnecessarily, but when I was in elementary and what used to be called junior high school, I was required -- required -- to read and study the three main documents, the Declaration of Independence, The Constitution of the United States, and the first ten amendments known as the Bill of Rights.  Before graduating high school, I had to take, and pass a civics test which covered among other things, those three documents.  The whole point of that exercise was to ensure that when I became age-eligible to vote, I fully understood how my government worked, and also the principles upon which it was built.

That kind of comprehensive learning is apparently not done in public schools today, which puzzles and saddens me.

Documents of any kind are at their root collections of words formed into sentences and arranged into paragraphs.  The end game is to communicate a specific message to the reader.  But words on a page do not by themselves communicate the emotion out of which such messages are crafted.  The second greatest speech ever given on U.S. soil, after the Gettysburg Address, was given by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Lincoln Memorial on a hot and steamy August 28, 1963 in Washington, DC.  Known as "I Have a Dream," it was a powerful cry from a people who, despite being citizens, had been systematically oppressed by the white majority.  Even a study of the text impresses the reader with its message.  But the most powerful element was Dr. King himself.  Drawing on his passion and the shared dreams of the tens of thousands gathered, he turned a speech into an epic tone poem.  The combination of the strength of those words and the power of his delivery created a riveting, and for America, a life-changing moment in our history.  Even today, I can't read that speech without hearing Dr. King in my head.

Such words and moments are borne out of the times in which they are crafted.  It was the same for the the crafters of our founding documents.  These were people who also felt repression; who also yearned for the freedom to determine their own destiny.  There is power in those words as well.  The problem is for the modern citizen, those statements are framed in a somewhat antiquated form of expression which, while clear and distinct at that time, tends to make understanding their full import today somewhat difficult.