Asleep at the Wheel

aleepRegardless of how we feel about it, technology is barreling towards us. The future promises more artificial intelligence with computers that can do everything but pick your nose. The latest invention is a car that accelerates, steers and brakes without human intervention. When I heard about this I nearly dropped my wine glass.

I wondered why anyone would need a car like that. Heck, half the fun of driving is making all those last-minute decisions. I enjoy using my senses and reflexes to motor around town and am of the minority who know how to drive a manual transmission. Downshifting is fun! I particularly like that horseshoe motion I make before taking a corner, a flourish of my wrist that pulls Christine, my 1995 Ford Escort into second from fourth.

And yet, there are compelling arguments for autonomous cars. Commuting is monotonous, cell phones are distracting and people make bad decisions. 94% of the annual 33,000 traffic fatalities in the US are due to human error. Drivers lose their tempers in traffic and sometimes fall asleep at the wheel. Self-driving cars may be the solution.

Folks who have driven autonomously view the traffic pattern on a screen and can see their car in relationship to the others on the road. While the other cars weave in and out of traffic and bobble around in their lanes, their car hugs the middle and doesn’t make erratic moves. “The biggest source of angst comes, not from any technology, but from the other people on the road whose non-computer-assisted imperfections are all the more visible when you are being chauffeured by a supercomputer.” -Joe Harpaz, Forbes. Trials show the human drivers at fault when an autonomous car has a fender bender.

To help me understand the allure of computer assist, I went on a virtual test drive with Alex:

Like Alex, I find the technology both unsettling and reassuring. Still, I have no desire to replace Christine with a self-driving car. I like being in the driver seat with full control over her behavior. It’ll be up to me, not my car whether to pause and let someone back out of the slant parking on our main street. It’ll be my eyes, not computerized sensors that determine whether to stop for the people hovering a few feet back from the cross walk zone.

And yet driverless cars may be inevitable. A lot of resources are going into their development with the hope that consumers can hop on board within the next five to fifteen years. By the time I turn 100, autonomous vehicles may be the primary mode of transportation. By then I might be tempted if I thought I could afford one.

Maybe its sour grapes, but I don’t think we need yet another buffer between us and our surroundings. I sense another shred of humanity will shrivel after computer assisted cars become commonplace. Everything that glitters is not gold. Sometimes it’s just broken glass in your carpet.


Ten ways autonomous driving could redefine the automotive world

Google Self-Driving Car Project

Humans Are Slamming Into Driverless Cars and Exposing a Key Flaw

Study: Self-driving cars have higher accident rate

Every Day Moments

Every day momentsThere are moments in every day that take my breath away. That choice bite of sandwich from the middle might get chewed and swallowed like all the others if I don’t take a moment to savor the feel of it on my tongue, the way it fills my mouth. An odd blend of pleasure and longing surges over me when I realize THIS bite is the best. None that follow will please me quite like this one, stellar bite.

I’ve experienced countless once-in-a lifetime moments and I regret those I missed. A certain tune will bring back the dance I shared with Nana in her living room forty years ago. A glimpse of Bob’s profile makes me blush with the memory of our first kiss. The taste of our sweetest memories linger, often for a lifetime.

I regret the birthday party I attended but essentially missed, because I was shrouded in a sullen, pubescent haze. I regret not going to Saturday Night Live after-show cast parties in 1977. Our family is in show business and my Aunt Kathy tried to get me to go several times. But I was a waitress and earned half my weekly pay in tips on Saturday nights, so I always turned her down.

Last weekend Bob and I were invited to a Blessingway for our neighbor, Chris and his family. It would be a gathering of close family friends, a wake for a man still living. We accepted without hesitation. Our friend will not wander this earth much longer and we didn’t want to miss an opportunity to walk by his side.

Twenty of us gathered in a remote location as storm clouds gathered. Chris’s wife, Alisa and our hosts Megan and Tim were bustling around, preparing for the ceremony. Megan was barefoot and soon we were, too. Tim helped Chris’s son bring up some fire wood. Chris and I leaned against the warm hood of a car. A rainbow sketched across the eastern horizon.

When all had arrived, we entered the Peace Chamber, a round building with a domed ceiling. Chairs circled a table with photographs from Chris’s life. The family seated themselves opposite the door. Megan proposed we each read a verse from a Native American prayer. We took turns expressing thankfulness for the trees, animals, birds and the four winds. Each verse ended with, “Now our minds are one.”

Many of us had prepared something to say and some would read letters from family who couldn’t be there. We spoke as we were moved to do so. Brooksie went first, singing a song that moved me to tears. For an hour we expressed our love for Chris and his family, molten feelings welding our hearts together. The sun went down outside the door.

Everyone dies but we don’t think about it much until it comes close. Both Bob and Tami thanked Alisa and Chris for bringing an awareness of death to our community. Our friendships are stronger now because we work as one to support our sweet neighbors in their time of crisis.

There are countless moments when the clouds shift, lighting up my world. If I don’t pay attention, they slip right by unnoticed. Chris’ Blessingway was an unforgettable occasion I’m glad I didn’t miss. Joy is made of savored moments. Remember to choose wisely, slow down and taste the best parts.

Watersong Peace Chamber
Thankfulness Prayer

75,000 an Hour

75000 An HourOne hundred times the speed of sound, 75,000 miles per hour is inconceivably fast. It’s more than twice the 36,373 mph of Nasa’s New Horizons as it hurtles towards Pluto. But I’m not writing about speed, I’m writing about dollars.

At $156 million a year, David Zaslav earns ten thousand times more per hour than ten million American workers working for the Federal minimum wage of $7.25. I can’t get my head around that figure so I took it down a notch. At forty hours a week, he’s pulling in $75,000 an hour. Whoa!

Okay, say he works eighty hours a week. That’s still $37,500 an hour, enough for me to pay off my mortgage in two hours. Enough to give everyone dear to me half a million dollars with one month’s pay.

According to the New York Post, “Cable network operator Discovery had the biggest pay gap. Its CEO, David Zaslav, was the highest-paid among S&P 500 companies last year, at $156 million. That was 1,951 times the amount paid to Discovery’s median worker.”

Things sure have changed since the sixties when the highest CEO salaries were only twenty times the average working wage. I can’t say as I like the direction they’re going. Sky high, as it were. Rocketing out of orbit. No one can be worth this kind of money, especially when fourteen out of every one hundred Americans are stuck below poverty level.

About that minimum wage, there’s been some progress. This year 29 States have adopted higher minimums, several reaching $10.50, with D.C. poised to bump their $10.50 to $11.50 mid-year. Yay!

So there you have it, a little bit of good news to sweeten a bitter pill. Income inequality continues to reach new heights in this country. Those clinging to the hope that the United States is still a democracy rather than an oligarchy aren’t paying attention. Something’s gotta give.


Us and Them

Us and ThemAs per usual in an election year, the media has gone ape shit and common folk are clawing out each other’s throats, splitting hairs on issues that only marginally affect them. Case in point, a friend writes an innocuous post for the Daily Kos and is vigorously attacked in the comments by people she never met. The vitriol and small-minded insults prompt her to remove the post. Her fingertips are singed, her appetite for speaking truth dampened. Bystanders feel their faith in humanity shaken.

It’s always been this way. Since homo erectus lit his first fire and sapiens saw her first glimmer of cognizant thought there has been an us and a them. Beware of them, we automatically think, they are not of our tribe/family/gene pool. They are foreigners.

As we progressed intellectually, humans often went so far as to say the “others” weren’t even human. The San people or Bushmen of South Africa were missing links according to Dutch settlers who authorized their extermination in the late 1700’s. Closer to home, Native Americans were deemed savages, and imported black Africans considered livestock.

It’s a matter of survival, actually. Wariness exists in all life forms. As surely as zebras instinctively shake off anything that lands on its back, we distrust those who are not our own. But, even zebras can rise above their distrustful instincts to be ridden without fear of injury. Likewise, sentient humans are capable of trusting strangers.

Our natural distrust plays nicely into the hands of conquerors. Indigenous populations were easily destroyed by small numbers of soldiers. Had the tribes joined forces, they would have easily fought off the intruders. Today we have enormous empires ruled by a handful of powerful corporations and we, the people are still powerless to join forces. Rather than fight the conquerors, we scrabble over insignificant issues. We are easily divided and so have fallen prey to a small group.

I’d love to see a return to small, self-sufficient communities, but fear it won’t happen until we’ve burned every drop of cheap oil and have no choice. In a perfect world, we shrink from empire to tribe and rise above distrust of others, never again to be factionalized by the elite.

It is time to jettison dichotomous thinking, the ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ of multi-national greed, predatory corporate practices, and partisan politics, and heighten our interconnectedness by designing economic systems, institutions, and businesses with a triple bottom line. – Dennis Kucinich

Snowzilla Takes the Village

2016122VillageOur neighbors got to prove their mettle and thus, the truth of the phrase “it takes a village” during a snow storm this weekend. The epic first blizzard of 2016, Snowzilla buried the east coast from Virginia to New York City, dumping two to three feet of snow, shutting down schools, airports and Broadway.

In our rural North Carolina community everything ground to a halt with a sleet storm followed by snow, icing over our driveways and roads. Fortunately, we did not lose power as did 120,000 Carolinians east of us. But we were faced with a challenge. Our good neighbors who were on holiday without their children suddenly found themselves unable to fly home as planned. Although they had a solid child care plan in place, their stay was now extended by three days. The delay might have ruined their trip were it not for the robust network of friends who volunteered to pitch in.

Tami called a meeting at her kitchen table and we put together a schedule. Brooksie, a lovely woman from another neighborhood had stayed with the kids the night of the storm and would continue sleeping at their house until the ice began to melt. After she was able to drive out, others would stay at the house or bring the children to their homes. Some of us showed up for the breakfast shift and others to make dinner. None of us could get our cars out so we walked back and forth, carrying food and crayons.

The kids adapted as if this were nothing out of the ordinary. They easily accepted their new extended family and went along with the program as if this were the status quo. Indeed, humans are likely hard-wired for nurturing by many rather than two. Years ago, when Bob split from the mother of his children, she wisely observed that the girls were faced with an addition problem rather than a subtraction problem. They now had two mothers and two fathers, she said.

Another benefit of these unexpected circumstances was that we got to hang out with each other. I spent one memorable afternoon with Brooksie, a former acquaintance who now feels like a friend. Lyle and Tami called a potluck and we had an evening of hot chocolate, conversation and crokinole. Time slowed down and despite the cold we were driven outside and into each other’s homes. Zoila and I made the rounds to Hope’s, to Brooksie and the kids, and to Tami and Lyle’s  holding umbrellas against the sleet. Hope set them up at her kitchen table with markers and a roll of paper so they could make a welcome home banner while we “mothers” enjoyed a good chat. It turned out the storm and delayed return of our friends were a great excuse to spend time with each other.

It’s times like these, when our cars are frozen to the earth and we mine our cupboards for crackers and beans that we return to our rightful pace. The gift of a common, meaningful goal gave our stride purpose and blushed our cheeks with pride of accomplishment. Eventually, the snow melted and the parents flew home, but we are all better off for the experience, happy to know what we are made of and what we can do together.

Death Cafe Comes to Pittsboro

DeathCafeDressed in earth colors and shades of purple, nearly forty people met at The Plant on Sunday to discuss death. Death Cafe is yet another cutting-edge Abundance NC event, the folks who brought Pecha Kucha to Pittsboro. The concept sprouted in London five and a half years ago and is quickly spreading across Europe, North America and Australia. The objective is “to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.”

Our hosts baked dozens of cupcakes and set up a coffee bar with locally roasted coffee from Plant neighbor Aromatic Roasting Company. Many guests brought plates of home-made confections. There were party lights and the hum of expectant energy. Settled in with coffee and cake, we began introducing ourselves.

Heartfelt and articulate, we heard from hospice professionals, women who had lost their husbands, men who had lost a child and people who hadn’t lost anyone yet but knew their time would inevitably arrive. Some spoke of good good-byes, others of natural burials, the world of the unseen, being awakened to death and unrequited grief. We talked about how common it was to care for the sick and dying at home a couple generations ago. How it was when family witnessed the transition and prepared the deceased for burial, often laying them to rest on family land.

With seventy-five million baby boomers aged fifty-two to seventy, the time is ripe for a new awareness. Many question the necessity of $7,000 to $10,000 funerals involving iron-clad coffins, embalming, and concrete liners. Biodegradable coffins and home burials are becoming common with the help of a blossoming natural death industry.

After two hours of listening and sharing, I left feeling less daunted by my aging parent’s eventual passing and more prepared to put my own affairs in order. And perhaps Bob and I will find a nice tree to settle under when our time on earth is up.


Compassion and Choices

Piedmont Pine Coffins

What’s My Line

Nana wasn’t lazy, I tell myself as I lurch from task to task, slogging my way through an endless to do list. Nana wasn’t lazy, but I just have to get outside for a walk. As soon as the woods closed in around me, my vision began to blur. Dang, here I was feeling sorry for myself again.

In theory, Christmas marks the season of peace and joy, but in practice we tend to set high bars for ourselves. I know I’m not the only one trying to pack too much into the last week of the year. I feel ensnared by commitments, tangled in party preparations.

I call upon Nana’s ear. She will listen to my woes without laughing and have something wise to say. Deeper into the woods I plunge, Nana at my side. Not all of my day is work, I begin, but I feel as if it is. This walk in the woods with you isn’t work, this is play. I enjoyed thirty minutes on facebook this morning and an hour corresponding with my email buddies. That wasn’t work, either.

And then it hits me. Nana wasn’t always on her feet, working. Nana napped in her chair by the phone in the afternoons and never missed “All in the Family” and “What’s My Line” on TV. When I shared her home we’d sit at the dining room table after dinner with a bottle of plum wine, relaxing and talking about anything that came to mind. Turns out, Nana was not the workaholic I’ve come to measure myself against.

I decide to explore the next level. What’s really troubling me is a task I wasn’t able to master. It had seemed like an easy problem but the solution eluded me. And then this morning Bob made a few transactions solving the problem I’d spent six hours trying to get my head around. His MBA and business career came to his aid in a way my horse, restaurant and clerical experience didn’t.

Some things are not possible. I couldn’t arm wrestle Arnold Schwarzenegger and win, for example. Nor could I swim the English Channel. I don’t have the mind for tax law but I’m smart enough to know when to say, “I can’t do this.” Not, “I don’t want to,” or “I’m too lazy to learn how to,” but “I can’t.”

Best not to attempt those things that are beyond you. You make your choices and live them without guilt. And then you sit in your favorite chair and relax.

Email for the Overwhelmed

I hear a lot of people say “I hate email!” “I get way too many emails!” or “Text me, it’ll just get lost in my email.” I completely understand because email can be overwhelming until you tame the beast.

It’s a great tool which helps me get things done quickly at work, organize my social life, and have long, meaningful conversations with my far-away friends. But, like any tool, it can easily lose it’s edge if neglected. A few minutes of maintenance once a day will help keep your email volume manageable.

I’ll mention here that I’ve routed my other four email addresses to one account. Here’s what I see when I check my email:


The panel on the left shows my folders. There are 8 unread emails in my Inbox, 7 in Drafts, 9 in Spam and so on. Over time, I’ve set up filters to send work emails to the Altadore folder, skipping the Inbox but keeping them marked as unread. This way I can see at a glance if I have any new work emails. I’ve done the same thing with other aspects of my life. As you can see, Friends is a separate category. I get to decide if I’m working or playing by choosing which folder to dive into.

My Inbox is on the right with all 8 unread emails and one already read. The first thing I do is clean that out. The only emails that should be showing up in my inbox are those which haven’t been routed to one of my folders. These are usually newsletters and notifications. I’ll scan them, deleting anything I’m not interested in and if I have time, I’ll deal with the emails that require action. My goal is an empty Inbox.

In terms of maintenance, if I want to stop getting emails from HARO, for example, I’ll click on the email and unsubscribe. If I can’t unsubscribe, I mark it as spam. Or I’ll take a moment to create a filter which sends everything from that address or with that subject directly to the trash. If I’ve gotten an email that I belongs in a folder, I take a moment to create a filter and re-direct future emails. Email from Bilbo Baggins will never again show up in your Inbox if they belong in your Friends folder.

Next, I go to the Spam folder just to make sure there’s nothing in there that shouldn’t be:


On this day I found an email from the chatlist that didn’t belong in spam so I checked it and clicked on the “Not spam” button. Then I deleted the rest, leaving an empty Spam folder.

Finally, I check the folders with new emails, read and archive anything not requiring action and leave everything that’s pending behind. When I’m finished with a folder, it looks something like this:


The red stars mean I need to take action and the orange stars mean I need to take action after receiving a response. No star means it’s in the works but still on my radar.

Housekeeping complete, I can settle in to write and answer emails. Or do something away from my desk, secure in the knowledge that I’m on top of things. If you think this method might work for you, I’ll happily help you set it up. No one should be burdened with email clutter and life’s too short to wade through junk mail.

Thankful for Time-worn Life Lessons

1954FrankCamilleHappy Thanksgiving to our family, friends and any readers that happen upon Plastic Farm Animals!

First and foremost, Bob and I are thankful for Emily, Tyler and our first grandchild Nolan Trout who turns one week old today. Welcome to the planet little Nolan!

Second, I’m thankful for delicious Thanksgiving memories going all the way back to Nana granting me the honor of decorating a giant basket with fruit, nuts, and animal-shaped hard candies.

Third, I’m thankful for all the glorious advice I’ve gleaned from the many people who have passed through my life. Much of it came from the older folk and I’m excited to pass it down.

Life is simple if you’ve got a good work ethic, healthy moral compass and respect for the natural world and all its creatures, including your fellow human beings.

It’s the externals that make life complicated. Our many possessions impede movement and clutter our minds. We’re bombarded by media promoting a culture of selfishness and waste without consequences.

Here are a few tips to help navigate the dark waters of our time:

  1. Leave some surfaces clear of stuff – an empty horizontal space is an invitation in the same way clutter is a rebuke
  2. Make sure everything has a place and you know where it is
  3. When you’re done with something, put it away
  4. Close the gate or door behind you unless you found it open
  5. Take an extra moment to leave things nicer than you found them
  6. Don’t waste food, water or words
  7. Give yourself idle time without screens to think and create
  8. Spend as much time as possible outside
  9. Walk in the woods
  10. Learn the calls, colors and habits of the birds in your yard
  11. Be nice to others, even when you are unhappy – it will make you feel better
  12. Share what you have and others will share with you
  13. Listen to what people are saying and imagine being in their shoes
  14. When you see someone working, give them a hand
  15. Always take the high road, pettiness makes you feel cheap

These fifteen lessons have served us well. May they do the same for you.

Nana, Cookie, Johnny and Grandpa

Nana, Cookie, Johnny and Grandpa

Safe House

MaryAnnAilloTexas1920sBad shit is going down in Paris, there was another earthquake in Japan and the world situation is desperate as usual. It’s enough to make me want to crawl back under the covers.

Everything looks good from my sunny desk window. Colorful birds chipping away at the feeder, traffic purposefully whizzing by, leaves lazily fluttering. I’m taking it slow today, recuperating from vascular surgery and my belly is full of the cheeseburger Bob made for breakfast.

My weekend “To Do” list is benign and easily realized. A little writing, some crocheting and a bit of work in the kitchen. Our browsers are off and neither Bob nor I will climb into a vehicle today.

Yup, all seems well if we ignore the news. We didn’t have the heart to watch the 911 footage and this new mess is equally distressing. If there were something we could do, we would. Meanwhile we’re going to carry on and look the other way.

But wait, actually we are doing something. Along with our friends, neighbors and co-workers, we’re creating a local economy which will survive cataclysmic collapse. Call it sustainability or call it resilience, the model harkens back a century to when people grew food, heated with wood, made their own hooch and shared their homes.

Nearly 100 years ago my Sicilian great-grandmother Mary Ann ran a boarding house in Dallas Texas. This was one way of getting by back then. You gardened, cooked, cleaned and did laundry for your family and your roomers. I imagine Mary Ann’s world was small, and what was happening on the other side of the world wasn’t too much of a threat.

Our work at The Plant involves shepherding a distillery through their first years, supporting two farms, a fuel-maker and a nonprofit whose mission is “to cultivate and celebrate community resilience.” All of us working together are consciously creating a local economy that is more reciprocal and enduring than the global model. Our work seems purposeful and real.

At home, we have twelve quarts of sauerkraut and a big box of Bob’s sweet potatoes to help us through winter. Next door Haruka and Jason are preparing for their annual rice sale tomorrow while another neighbor finishes work on a hen pen before bringing home a flock of layers. Zoila stopped by with some locally made goat cheese so we gave her a bottle of local port. Lyle came by with pecans he picked off the ground and we sent him away with cheese.

We are secure in our friendships, making it easy to turn away from the news. The world situation inspires us to work in the garden, put up cabbage, bake bread and trade with the neighbors. And maybe one day we will follow in my great-grandmother Mary Ann’s footsteps and open up our house to lodgers.

1920 census