Forced-Togetherness Fridays: Go Karts (and when team building goes wrong)

There is a flyer in the bathroom at work extolling the virtues of team-building activities and also listing some dos and don’ts, such as making sure it’s something that everyone can participate in, doesn’t cause difficulty or embarrassment for some members, etc. Reading this brought to mind an experience from over ten years ago that included the worst team-building event I have ever participated in.

At the time, I was a manager in a department with extremely high talent but low morale. There were many reasons for this, including workload, changing priorities, and toxic aspects of the company culture. In the midst of this, our director decided to hold a team-building event, an ostensibly fun outing at an indoor Go Kart track along US 101 in one of the towns south of San Francisco. For those who are not familiar with Go Karts, they are essentially mini cars that don’t have reverse, or even brakes just an accelerator and a steering wheel. They don’t reach particularly high speeds and drivers wear helmets and seat belts. So it’s generally a safe activity, but there is some element of risk. And it can get competitive very quickly.

Our own experience turned both highly competitive and somewhat risky rather quickly. After a few minutes of hanging out in the lounge and talking with colleagues, we were ushered into the car area for a quick orientation and safety drill, and then given our helmets and cars. And we were off and racing. It was a miserable experience from the start. The inability to use breaks, the clumsiness of the steering, and the inability to go into reverse after bumping into a track wall made it difficult and confusing. I decided it was just something to endure for as long as I needed to, and just proceed slowly and cautiously. Our race was the second, with the first one already confirming some of the worst competitive aspects of some members of our team. This included our department director, as well as some of the other “leaders” who engaged in macho trash talk and were clearly focused on winning. Not that some of the women weren’t having a great time: our team’s HR liaison was with us and she was clearly enjoying herself. And that’s all well and good, but none of it was team building.

I tried my best to be a good sport and play along, moving slowly and cautiously around the track as our more competitive members speed past. A screen announced the standings after each lap, and I was falling further and further behind. On one hand, I didn’t care. On the other, I was frustrated at the increased distance behind everyone else. This was a period of time where I was already feeling bullied and belittled by more aggressive colleagues and this experience was not helping. I decided to crank it up a notch, hit the accelerator, and give it one last good run.

I ran right into the wall at full speed. Actually, slightly under the wall, which was a rail with a large nerf-like baffle. My leg got wedged underneath. And remember, there is no reverse, so I had no way to back up and get out. Every attempt to get out only seemed to make things worse, as my leg got further stuck underneath. It was painful, and also terrifying. Finally, a worker made it out to the track and get me dislodged. Although in pain, I was able to walk and limped off the track, where I was severely chastised for going too fast.

Nothing was broken, but it was a small, deep, bloody gash. But it was painful. A bit of basic first aid and a bandage was all that was needed medically, and after about a week it mostly healed. But to this day, I have a small “depression” in my leg where the injury occurred.

gash in the leg

Fortunately, it’s not really visible to anyone who doesn’t know it’s there.

Back to the event itself. I was done for the rest of the day and wandered outside on the stoop of the building. The warm sunshine and the sound of traffic from 101 were emotionally soothing and a nice counterpoint to adrenaline-laced intensity and competition of the event. I also found two of my colleagues there who had opted out for various medical reasons. We struck up a nice and far-ranging conversation – I don’t remember what we talked about, but probably included music, theater, art, and technology. If there was any actual team building from this outing, it happened here next to parking lot with my colleagues who also were not participating in the main event. I would posit that there was no team building whatsoever from the main event. A few takeaways:

  • It was not something for everyone to participate in and enjoy. Some were left out for medical reasons, and some of us were clearly not going to enjoy it.
  • It was fiercely competitive. While competition can be fun – I certainly have a competitive streak myself – for many people it can be isolating.
  • It’s a risky-feeling adrenaline-rush activity, which is polarizing and isolating for those who do not thrive in such situations.
  • Team building should not leave a permanent scar, physically or emotionally.

A simple afternoon a bar or pub would have been much better from my perspective, or honestly anything else that made more of an effort to make everyone feel welcome and included.  I may not particularly enjoy karaoke, but can certainly have a good time and feel welcome.  Beyond these specifics on “team building”, the event sent to me and probably to others a really negative message about the company’s culture and values. Over the next year or so, these concerns were often borne out in the workplace, where bullying and competitiveness were not only tolerated but often rewarded. On the plus side, I did soon after this incident get a new director whose interest and temperament was much closer to my own 🙂

A Perfectly Clear Day 2018

Once again, it’s a perfectly clear day this year. Maybe a little haze, but otherwise a blue sky in San Francisco. But the sounds of the city are a bit sharper today, the foot traffic, the construction equipment, the screeching of the commuter rail and light rails pulling into their stations. And there is a bit of wistfulness, a bit of nostalgia in the most classical sense of the word.

A few things have brought 9-11 back to the fore the anniversary. First, there was the opening of the Cortland Street subway station which serves the 1 IRT line and which was pretty much destroyed in the attack. It’s the last major piece of the puzzle in the rebuilding of the neighborhood, which is a thriving and vital space that includes the transit center, the 9/11 Memorial, and of course 1WTC which has taken its proper place in the skyline.


[Photo by CatSynth]


[Joe Mabel (CC BY-SA 2.0 ), via Wikimedia Commons]

Let’s take a moment to emphasize that the building is called 1WTC! It never was, and never will be, the so-called “Freedom Tower”, a name that was obnoxious, jingoistic, and rather gauche. Same thing for the attempts to call the date “Patriot Day”. I always detested that.

The other time bringing today into focus wasn’t 17 years ago, but last year. I was back in New York by coincidence, and the Towers of Light memorial loomed over us in both Manhattan and Brooklyn as we went about simply enjoying being in New York. I posted this picture at the time.

If there is a dominant feeling at the moment, it is more one of homesickness for my home city, the one that will always be The City. And that trip one year ago truly emphasized all its aspect. A wedding on Governors Island with both lower Manhattan and Brooklyn waterfront surrounding us. I rode a record number of subway lines (yes, I’m a total transit nerd). We wandered in Borough Park as well as my usual haunts in Downtown Brooklyn, Chelsea, the West Village, and the Bronx.

17 years ago, the dominant feelings were grief, anger, and (I’m not afraid to admit it) a desire for revenge. That revenge never came – it was twisted by the rest of the country into a nationalistic (and often tacky) morass that turned into multiple wars that left us and the world poorer. The rest of the country rattles its swords, waves its flags, and the great cities suffer. I do hope one day the radical fundamentalism and radical nationalism that grip so many places in the world, including our own country in this moment, will dissipate. And I hope to return home again.

Not-so-fun with Highways: Eureka…and Ukiah

There was a brief period of respite at the beginning of August between the end of the Outsound New Music Summit and the start of a new job.  Time was tight, so there wasn’t time for an extended odyssey in the deserts of southeastern California.  But the north coast, specifically Humbolt County and the area around Eureka, were well within range for a two-day trip.  I have never been that far north on the coast.  I got an Airbnb in Eureka.  I researched a mixture of industrial and natural spaces for photography and exploration.  I even got a new lens for the big camera.  And early on Saturday morning (or at least early by CatSynth standards), I was ready to go.

Eureka is a direct shot up US 101 from San Francisco, about a four-hour trip in good conditions.  It’s a major freeway up to the border between Sonoma and Mendocino counties, and then a mixture of an expressway and a two-lane road through the redwoods, with spots of freeway near major towns.

I never made it to Eureka.

The beginning of the trip was enjoyable and largely uneventful – and the Russian River gorge section after crossing into Mendocino County is spectacular.   North of Ukiah, I felt like I was actually transitioning into exploration, as this was somewhat novel territory (technically, I had been as far north as Legget in 2013, but that was in the evening and rushed).  Once CA 20 joins with 101 north of Ukiah, the combined route begins a long, steep grade into the hills.  It is here where things started to go a bit wrong.  The temperature gauge on the car, usually quite steady, suddenly shot up beyond the red “H”.  This is definitely not good.  I shut off the air conditioning and things calmed down a bit as we got into the new Willits bypass, a Super-2 limited access highway.  North of the bypass, 101 becomes a steep windy road through the woods; the temperature gauge shot up again.  This was definitely not good.  I limped back to Willits to give the car a break and figure out next steps.

I’ve been through Willits a few times, but never really stopped there.  The little downtown has some cute old brick buildings.  But I had no time to play – I needed to find a repair shop.  Nothing showed up in Yelp as open.  I probably should have called AAA at this time, but I did find an open shop in Ukiah, so I limped back.  I drove conservatively, with the windows open, the vent fully open, and one eye on the temperature gauge.

I was relieved when I finally pulled into Tony Lopez Automotive.  It was out a strange little industrial side-street south of downtown.  Tony was clearly not pleased to have someone wander in with car trouble just as he was getting ready to close, but he was also chivalrous and ready to help out a damsel in distress.  We got the car cooled down; and after a bit of diagnosis, he identified a small but pernicious radiator leak.  The diagnosis took some time, and while I was sitting I noticed a rather interesting pile of old car parts.  I snapped an iPhone photo, which became a Wordless Wednesday featured a couple of weeks ago.

I regret not grabbing my better camera out of the car to get a higher-quality image, but it was not my priority at the time.  And I do like the abstract quality the pixelation provides.  Tony did notice the fancier equipment still in the car, though, and it sparked a conversation about my writing and photography and about this site.  I wonder if he has checked it out.

Once things were ready, I left town – I would have loved to stay, but I was eager and anxious to get home.  I also left Tony Lopez a glowing Yelp review.  If you on 101 in the vicinity of Ukiah and need auto help, please patronize his shop and tell him that Amanda from San Francisco sent you.

The trip back to San Francisco was sad but uneventful, and in this case uneventful was good.  I didn’t record the trip back on Highway☆, but here is the exact same trek that I did record on a short but happier trip in July.

The engine temperature stayed within an acceptable range, and it was fine over the next few days in San Francisco, but the radiator definitely needed to repaired ASAP.  This experience also cured me of any sort of “fun with highways” wanderlust for a while and I have remained close to home since then (except for μHausen).  But the bug is starting to come back, and I might have to start exploring again.  I might even make it to Eureka one of these days…

See more of Northern California and many other fascinating places in our Highway☆ app, available on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store. 

Highway☆ on Apple App Store    Highway☆ for Android

Outsound New Music Summit: CDP and Dire Wolves

While I thoroughly enjoyed every night of this year’s Outsound New Music Summit, last Friday was special because I was on stage with my own band CDP.  We shared the bill with Dire Wolves for a night of contrasting retro styles within the context of new and experimental music.

I often get asked what “CDP” stands for.  And while it does stand on its own as a name, it does come from the initials of the original three members: Chaudhary, Djll, Pino.  That’s me on keyboard and vocoder, Tom Djll (synthesizers), and Mark Pino (drums).  Joshua Marshall joined the band in 2017, bringing his technical chops and versatility on tenor and soprano saxophone.  As a road-and-map geek, it also stands for “Census Designated Place”.

CDP at the Outsound New Music Summit

We had five tunes for this concert.  Three of them were from the series I call “the jingles”, including White WineNorth Berkeley BART, and our newest song, Rambutan (it’s a fruit from Southeast Asia).  Marlon Brando and Konflict Mensch rounded out the set.  Each featured a melodic and harmonic head followed by open improvisation – no fixed solos, even listens to one another and comes in and out.  Our style is a blend of funk, fusion and experimental music reminiscent of Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi and Head Hunters bands or Soft Machine 5 & 6, with a bit of 1970s Frank Zappa / George Duke mixed in.  The music is a joy to play and I’m so glad to be able to be on a stage playing it.

Amanda Chaudhary and Joshua Marshall, CDPWe got off to a somewhat shaky start with White Wine, but we settled down quickly as we headed into the improvisation section.  From that point on, things only got better with Marlon Brando and North Berkeley BART (which is always a local crowd pleaser).  Rambutan was a lot of fun, including the funky 7/4 jam and the call-and-response chant with the audience.  Mark held up the metric foundation, working with both me and Tom who took turns on the bass roll.  Tom also got some great sounds in his solos, as did Josh who moved easily between growls and mellifluous melodic runs.

Tom Djll's synth

The vocoder, a Roland VP-03, held up pretty well – in some ways, I felt the scatting went even better than the lyrics – though there is still work to do keeping the voice intelligible in the context of the full band.   I was exhausted and satisfied after the set, and look forward to doing more with our band.

You can read Mark Pino’s perspective on the set on his blog.

For the second set, Dire Wolves brought a completely different energy to the stage.  Where CDP was exuberant and even frenetic at times, Dire Wolves welcomed the audience with a mellow and inviting psychedelic sound.

Dire Wolves

[Photo by Michael Zelner]

There was a sparseness to the music, with Jeffrey Alexander (guitar + winds), Sheila Bosco (drums)Brian Lucas (bass) and Arjun Mendiratta (violin) each staking claim to a distinct orchestral space within the soundscape.  Alexander and Mendiratta had lines that melted seamlessly from one to the next; Brian Lucas’ bass was sometimes melodic.  Bosco’s drums provided a solid foundation, but she also contributed voice and other sounds to the mix.

Jeffrey Alexander Sheila Bosco

[Photos by Michael Zelner]

My mind was still processing the set we had just played, but the trance-like qualities of Dire Wolves provided a space for a soft landing and to return to a bit of balance.  Sadly, it seems this was the band’s last performance for a while, at least with the current lineup.  But I look forward to hearing more from each of these musicians in their other projects.

Both groups played to a decently sized and very appreciative audience – not the capacity crowds of the previous or following nights, but respectable.  And I got quite a bit of positive feedback from audience members after our set.  We still have one more night of the summit to cover, and then it’s onward to future events.

CatSynth 12th Anniversary

It’s our twelfth anniversary!  It’s hard to believe that this little project I started as a lark in 2006 is still going and expanding.  Here is that first picture of Luna that went up on July 19, 2006!

As always, we look to the anniversary as a moment for reflection and for changes.  We don’t have compiled detailed stats this year, but we do have several high-level milestones.  Most notably, we launched CatSynth TV last October, and since then have shared 74 videos! More are on the way.  We have continued to develop our apps, including the original CatSynth: The App! and Highway☆, though there is so much more we want to do there, both with existing and new apps.  And Sam Sam has blossomed into the new star of CatSynth!  With so many facets competing for our attention, there has been less time for the long-form reviews that once dominated this site, though we still write long-form articles when we can.  So with that, we make some announcements:

  • Sam Sam finally takes her rightful place on the masthead alongside the late great Luna!  It’s a change that is long overdue.  And appropriately, we are featuring one of her scratch’n’roll poses.
  • We are going to open up the site to new voices.  We have already had a couple of guest music reviews, and of course the semi-regular Mensa Cats cartoon series.  This is going to expand in the coming months.  If you have an idea for an article you would like to contribute, please let us know.
  • And as always, please keep sending us your cat-and-gear pics.

So please join Sam Sam and me in celebrating twelve years of CatSynth!  We look forward to sharing many more with all of you.

Pick Your Poison: Road Travel in California

We at CatSynth love traveling and exploring our adopted home state.  This includes day trips from the Bay Area as well as longer adventures.  But one thing remains a bit of a challenge.  For much of the state, the main highways are primarily north-south, with very few east-west routes.  One chooses one of the long-haul north-south highways, California 1, US 101, I-5, California 99, or US 395 and is pretty much locked in with only a few options for efficiently traveling east to west.  There is I-80 in the middle north, California 152 or California 46 from the coast through the Central Valley and California 58/I-40/I-15 further south.

 

North of Sacramento, east-west travel becomes even more difficult, with routes like California 20 and California 299 being relatively rural and windy for much of their length.  The end result is that most of our trips – especially single-day trips heading north – are forward and back along one of the main north-south routes unless we have extra time or necessity to use the smaller east-west roads.

This north-south bias can be seen in an almost self-similar way when zooming in on the extended Bay Area.  South of San Francisco, there is California 1, I-280, US 101, I-880, I-680 and then not much at all until one gets to I-5 in the Central Valley.

In the North Bay and wine country, a similar pattern appears with CA 1, US 101 and CA 29, with another large gap until I-505 and I-5.  We have made use of east-west roads like CA 128 to get between them as in our recent wine-country trip that featured Elsie the Library Cat.  But this is a long detour.

This north-south axis may be frustrating at times (especially the further north one gets), but there is nothing particularly sinister about it.  It’s all a matter of Calfornia’s geology.  The interface of the Pacific and North American plates that give us our reputation for earthquakes also lead to long bands of north-south mountain ranges and valleys.  The Sierra Nevada may be the most dramatic, but it is only one of several that form vertical stripes, with the Central, Sacramento, Salinas, and Napa valleys in between.  The San Francisco Bay can be seen as another such valley in a way, with shallows bounded by high hills running north-south.

The exception to the “north-south rule” can be found south of the San Gabrial mountains and into the desert.  From Los Angeles and San Diego, one can easily travel east-west to the desert towns and to the Arizona border on I-10 and I-8, with a network of other east-west freeways in between.  It is definitely a different experience traveling down there once one gets over the Grapevine or the Tehachapi Pass and into the southern realms.  As for the rest of the state, there is no escaping the geographic reality, so it is best to embrace it, and even enjoy it.

The Disintegration of Thought Revisited: Fifth Nest

We rely on keeping our sight, hearing, and thoughts in sync with one another.  It is necessary for everyday tasks such as walking, extraordinary abilities such as sinking 3-point shots in basketball, or just about anything we do in musical performance. Indeed, I am often reminded when performing in ensembles how important it is to keep all three of those processes tightly coupled.

But decoupling has tremendous value as well and relates directly to what I termed “the disintegration of thought” in a previous article.  It is a practice that has been particularly welcome in the past couple of days as psychic entropy reached a crescendo.  Indeed, doing so this afternoon relieved some of that stress, even as personal and professional challenges and relentless cruelty of current events swirl around.

It is a relatively simple process, and not that different from more traditional forms of meditation except that there is no focus or control.  One lies flat in a comfortable place, not too dark but not too bright.  It should be quiet but not silent to allow for deep listening.  I find the bedroom area of HQ during the day perfect for this.  The urban sounds beyond the windows form a gentle syncopation with just enough detail.  With eyes closed, one turns to mental visuals – I once heard them described as “eyelid movies”.  It’s important not to concentrate on either the internal visuals or the sounds, but not to ignore them either.  Just experience them decoupled.  In this way, thoughts seem to organize themselves into their own separate stream, often nonsensical but organized nonetheless.  The decoupled channels together form a complex free improvisation, not too different from free improvisation in music when it is at it best.

Most of the thoughts are words are forgettable.  But in a session this afternoon, one phrase, in particular, popped out: fifth nest.  I have no idea what it means, and honestly, it doesn’t really matter.  I didn’t want to dwell on it, as it would break the spell of the experience.

Today’s session was successful in that I emerged calm with much of the entropy dissipated but not groggy the way one would after a nap (it’s important not to fall asleep).  There is a deep melancholy in the calm, but that is OK.  And the phrase “fifth nest” seems to have stayed with me.  I still have no idea what it means, but it could be a point of departure for a piece of music or creative writing in the future.

 

 

Weekend Cat Blogging with Sam Sam: At Rest

It’s been a stressful few weeks for us at CatSynth.  Not bad per se, just stressful.  During times like this, I often lie down to reduce psychic entropy and practice disintegration of thought.  And Sam Sam is often lying down next to me.

Sam Sam Curled up to sleep

Like most cats, Sam Sam is quite good at napping.  One might even say she is an “expert sleeper”, but that might cause confusion with one of the modular-synth manufacturers we sometimes feature.  She does have her own unique way of curling up, though, pull her tail close to her head and sometimes even grabbing it with her paw.  It’s adorable, and it never fails to make me smile.

Sam Sam holding her tail

She enjoys the soft blankets, either the burgundy or gray.  But she almost always chooses the same corner of the bed.  This is not surprising, as all of us at CatSynth are creatures of habit.

We hope you all have a relaxing and enjoyable weekend.  For us, it will be a bit stressful once again, but with very focused study and practice on both the technological and musical fronts.  But I will do my best to keep Sam Sam’s example in mind as I work through it.  We can learn much from our cats!

 

Luna’s 13th Gotcha Day (in memoriam)

June 10 was Luna’s Gotcha Day.  For many years, it was one of the most joyous days of the calendar.  Since her passing in 2016, it has been challenging and melancholy. There is rarely a day when I don’t think about my special little girl and soulmate of almost 12 years.

Grief is a nonlinear process. The memories of her life, and of her loss, have mostly been integrated.  I can casually see pictures on a regular basis of her and remain in the moment, but scrolling back through them in a deliberate process this morning brings some tears.  CatSynth HQ is very much Sam Sam’s now, and we respect her territory (and spoil her rotten while doing so).  Yet even she sometimes seems to sense a presence of a former kitty in some of the corners and crevices that defy cleaning.

There is so much I miss about Luna.  Her beauty and elegance, her shy but sweet nature.

And she was fiercely territorial, especially when it came to me.  She did not like to share, but she made me feel very loved.  She could sit patiently while I made weird sounds in the studio.  And despite being a “strictly indoor” cat, she loved going outside on the patio after we moved to San Francisco.

Regular readers know I am not at all religious.  And I don’t have a particular notion of an afterlife.  But I do like to sometimes think about Luna taking her place among those I have lost over the years, mostly human friends and family.  The visualization is of them all standing and waiting patiently, a little black cat in front of the much taller people.  I also take comfort in the Rainbow Bridge, and in the community of cat bloggers who have loved and lost over these many years.

I do not expect that the grief will ever disappear entirely.  And that’s ok.  We continue.

Forced Togetherness Fridays: Depression

With multiple suicides of noted figures making headlines this week, it is no surprise that depression, too, has been a major topic of discussion, both in the news and on social media.

First, let’s look at depression itself.  I am not a psychologist, nor a licensed professional of any sort when it comes to mental and emotional health.  I am, however, someone who has dealt with depression.  Mostly mild, but sometimes quite severe.  And it’s different from sadness.  Sadness is a rich feeling, albeit a deeply painful one at times.  Depression is a hole, an absence of feeling that can be very debilitating and frustrating.  Most of the time, it is just something that comes and goes periodically, like the tides, seasonal flooding, or the marine layer that often blankets San Francisco.  Sometimes it is the byproduct of prolonged stress, from a workplace, from relationships, or really anything.  When Luna was diagnosed with cancer, and when she later passed away, there was tremendous sadness and grief.  But the depression is separate from sadness, and in the case of Luna’s illness, it was from the stress and sometimes a sense of helplessness that came in between those events.

Another thing that can cause or exacerbate depression is a sense of being trapped.  This can be confinement to a physical space, but also mental or metaphoric.  The sense of being “trapped” in the wrong birth gender would be one example, as would being trapped in a bad relationship (a long time ago), or any number of negative workplace experiences over the years.  It can come from being trapped by others expectations, or fear of being judged and shamed for something as simple as deciding what to eat for lunch.  One can also feel trapped by negative emotions like sadness and the fact that our culture sanctions very few outlets for them outside of grief.

The most important thing, I have found, is to reduce the sense of feeling trapped.  Like reducing artificial barriers on a shoreline, it allows the emotions to ebb and flow more gradually and naturally, and not get caught up as easily in dangerous cycles.  That could be something small, like going out for a walk and getting fresh air, or deciding to leave a bad job.  It could be a good cry – I find adorable pictures of cats can be a good way of inducing a depression-cleansing cry.  But more often than not, the activity requires a fair amount of space and solitude.  Like a road trip, playing one of the synthesizers, or cuddling with my cat.

Well-intended inquiries and offers of company can actually have the opposite effect and can lead to feeling even more trapped, stressed, and depressed. In a sense, this is bringing a “forced togetherness” situation into the picture.  The best thing to do to help, outside of a genuine crisis situation, is to let people know you are there if needed, and then wait for your friend or loved one to take the lead.  Don’t assume, and don’t treat the depression as something that needs to be tamped out.  Do listen, because sometimes all a depressed person needs at the moment is to be heard and acknowledged, not to take action.  And let them tell you what they need: if it’s company,  help with a particular problem, or simply to be left alone and to feel free to be themselves and do what they wish without judgment.

Of course, none of this applies in a genuine crisis situation, where the immediate needs of the crisis take precedent.  While we sometimes have to make a call on whether a situation is a crisis, but handling it is often best left to professionals if possible.

The other caveat is that everything I have described is deeply individual and likely to be different for different people.  But that is the most important point.  Everyone is different and experiences depression differently.  And attempting to force the same solutions or advice can only make things worse.