#KSW45 and CatSynth: A Personal History

As Kearny Street Workshop gets ready to celebrate its 45th anniversary, we at CatSynth look back in the many ways our histories have intertwined in the past decade, from a shy outsider writing reviews to becoming Board President!

In August 2009, I attended a guided tour of the Present Tense Biennial, an exhibition co-curated by the Chinese Cultural Center and an intriguing-sounding organization named Kearny Street Workshop – it seemed an apt name for organization hosting an exhibition on Kearny Street.  I wrote an article about it which was seen by the folks at KSW including then-executive-director Ellen Oh, who invited me to cover their flagship program APAture the next month.

I did go to several of the APAture programs, including the opening night and visual-arts showcase and the music showcase, writing more articles, making new friends, and probably drinking a bit too much.  This was an entirely new community quite apart from the experimental-music and jazz circles in which I traveled, or the other contemporary visual artists I was meeting.  I went on to attend KSW’s rollicking SF Thomassons Performance Tour in January 2010, and also befriend Truong Tran (himself a former executive director) at the opening of his first solo exhibition Lost and Found.

It was during these and other events that I became more acquainted with the history of the organization beyond the art and artists it was currently supporting.  I learned about the Asian American movement, about the history of the neighborhood from which KSW derived its name and about the fall of the I Hotel.  Kearny Street Workshop was not simply an arts organization, or eventhe “oldest organization in the U.S. focused on Asian American artists”, but a multi-generational group dedicated to local activism and community through the arts.  I became a regular donor and continued to attend events, including A Sensory Feast, and continued to write and share reports.  But in many ways, I was still an outsider looking in.

That all changed in 2013 when APAture returned after a four-year break and I was a performing artist for the opening night.

I performed an experimental electronic set with tabletop and modular synths and a dotara (Indian folk stringed instrument) for a large and diverse audience.  I felt more connected to the KSW community, but that was about to become even more so as then program director (and later executive director) TJ Basa invited me to get more deeply involved, recruiting me to join program committees, including the ever-popular Dumpling Wars.  This led to joining the board of directors in 2014.

During this time, KSW was in a process of rebuilding from its board down to its individual programs and partnerships, and returning to its activist and community-focused routes.  Under TJ and new programming manager (now Artistic Director) Jason Bayani we began to focus programming in this direction, including the resurgent APAture festival (which I performed at again that year).

[2014 Kearny Street Workshop / Antoine Duong]

Later that year, I became Board President and Chair as we grew the board into its strongest and most active team in many years.  It was quite an unexpected turn that I would never have anticipated when I first started attending events five years earlier.  KSW became a family, and I was now about as much an “insider” as one could be.  I learned a lot about individual and institutional fundraising, forging relationships with other groups, and the herding of cats that is a small and scrappy but ambitious arts non-profit.  But I still found joy in participating directly in events and writing reviews, including for last year’s APAture festival.  It coincided with the launch of CatSynth TV, and we featured the opening night and book-arts showcase in two of our early episodes.

Tomorrow night is our 45th Anniversary Gala, to be held at the Chinese Cultural Center, where I first encountered KSW nine years earlier.  In a way, it is coming full circle.  But instead of writing a review, I am writing a speech to recognize the 45 years and multiple generations of history.  If you are in San Francisco tomorrow evening and wish to join us, there are still a few tickets available for the general program.

 

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Forced Togetherness Fridays: Rainy Afternoons

A rainy afternoon like this one at HQ can be a delight.  Listening to the polyrhythms of the droplets outside, the gray sky and the shadows, all from a warm comfortable space with a purring cat and favorite music.  It can be a great time for focusing on creative projects, or just lying around and experience the “disintegration of thought.”

Rainy days at an office can be more challenging, especially when said office is one of the worst offenders of “forced togetherness.”  I retreated into my work, getting better acquainted with the Swift programming language and listening to music on my headphones using the mobile music-play I was tasked with building.  To this day, I associate Shuggie Otis’ “Strawberry Letter 23” with rainy days and the mental and personal space I created for myself.

In my mind, I was in a dank 1970s wood-paneled den with a stereo with large speakers – maybe a lava lamp or two – as the gentle rain outside provided a foundational background noise.  A bit melancholy but also happy and contented.  I also played a lot of Ornette Coleman on our app as I was building and testing it.  It was no accident that Lonely Woman rose in the play statistics against the insipid contemporary pop tunes form our top charts and staff picks.

Another aspect of rainy days at this particular office was that our external network often went down.  It is rather difficult to work at or run a technology company without internet, so this logically led to an exodus with most of us working from home the remainder of the day.  On one occasion, one of the co-founders exhorted us all to come with him to his apartment building with the selling point “we have a rec room!”   This was quintessential forced togetherness, as it is unclear what possible benefit a rec room would have to do with getting our work done.  Now I don’t know what was going through his mind – perhaps he was just lonely, and maybe he even thought he was being generous – but it was par for the course for a company whose culture seemed about hanging out together.  This was, after all, the same company with the coercive lunch behavior that I described in the previous installment of this series.  Even before joining, when I balked at an embarrassingly low offer, part of their response was a series of emails and links to blog posts of them hanging out and partying, presumably intended to show me “how cool they were.”  This should have been a red flag, but I did not take the warning.  A bit older and wiser, I do take such warnings very seriously now when I evaluate business and career opportunities.

However, it still remains an open question as to why young companies, particularly with young founders, tend to put such a premium on togetherness to the point where others are pressured to participate.  We will continue to unpack this in future installments of this series.

Forced Togetherness Fridays: Beyond Zucktown

Facebook has been in the news quite a lot of late.  None of it for good reasons.  But buried amidst the articles on data privacy and the Cambridge Analytica scandal I found the story “Welcome to Zucktown. Where Everything Is Just Zucky.” in The New York Times. Basically, it discusses Facebook’s plans for a new community adjacent to its Menlo Park campus, with housing, shops, and such.

CA Highway 109As seen in the above screenshot from our Highway☆ app, Facebook’s campus is at the remote northern edge of Menlo Park, straddling the Bayfront Expressway (California Highway 84).  Even by the standards of sprawling Silicon Valley campuses, this one is isolated, with access primarily by car or company busses.  The proposed development, which is formally called “Willow Village” (Facebook dislikes the nickname “Zucktown”)  would be to its east, between CA 84, Willow Road (unsigned CA 114) and University Avenue (unsigned CA 109), and adjacent to the neighboring town of East Palo Alto. While ostensibly an open community with public access and some affordable housing units, it is clearly being designed for Facebook employees.  And although the benefits of living close to work – and cutting down on commutes – are abundant, there is a difference between living near work and living in work.  And that is why it touched a raw nerve with me.  One of my main critiques working the industry, besides the subtle but rampant sexism, is what I call forced togetherness.  In the culture of many tech companies, it isn’t enough to do good work every day or even work long hours.  There is tremendous pressure, implicit or explicit, to be socially present at all times, to treat the company as one’s community, one’s “life”.

Forced togetherness comes in much smaller ways than planned communities of coworkers.  At a previous job of mine in 2014 at a tiny startup, everyone ate lunch together almost every day.  Ostensibly, it was supposed to be Monday, Wednesday, Friday, but it quickly became clear that Tuesday and Thursday were expected as well.  One day early when I politely passed on lunch – and was looking forward to going out by myself for a little bit – the CEO seemed perplexed and kept trying to offer one option after another for ordering lunch in.  I had to finally just say “Look, I’m a big girl, I can feed myself!”  This was met with some quiet and awkward laughter.  It’s not that lunch was mandatory, but there was a social expectation, and implicit coercion, that eating together was the right thing to do.

I have come to look for red flags in this regard.  In my current job search, another very small company reached out to me with an interesting opportunity.  But they were located in Redwood City.  I have more than once stated I would sooner move back to New York than take another job on the peninsula – but I played along and politely explained that I prefer to work in San Francisco proper, but did they have flexible or remote work options.  I got the following reply.

We do not do remote. It hinders the culture of the company we are building and we love hanging out with each other.

There are many good reasons that some companies require employees to be on site.  But what this message told me was that the policy was based not on a business or practical necessity, but on a virtue, a belief that this is how people should be.  It says they are more interested in a culture based on “hanging out with each other” than on “getting things done.” It says that to succeed in that culture, one must be someone that they like to hang out with.  And this suggests how cultures of forced togetherness go beyond just wiping out the boundaries between work and the rest of one’s life, but also how the monoculture of Silicon Valley is perpetuated.  If one is looking for “people we love to hang out with”, one is probably going to hire people that share a similar set of backgrounds, styles, and personalities.  Hence, we find bands of mostly young men of white, Indian, and East Asian backgrounds who perpetuate college dorm life into their post-collegiate adulthood.

Of course, these are just simply two anecdotes, along with the concept writ large in Facebook’s Willow Village.  I hope to dive deeper in these phenomena in future articles for the “Forced Togetherness Fridays” series, along with some positive stories of how things can go right instead of wrong with only a few cultural changes.  And I welcome thoughts from others as I move forward, either sharing your own stories of forced togetherness in the workplace, or even counter-arguments in its favor.  Until then, I plan to enjoy some quiet time working hard, by myself with just my cat for company.

Fun with Highways: 45 on California 45

A few years ago, I traveled California’s Highway 41 on my 41st birthday. I had hoped to make this a regular tradition, but various circumstances have kept me from following through, until this year, when I drove the southern half of California Highway 45.  It wasn’t exactly on my birthday, and I didn’t complete the route, but was still a fun and eccentric way to celebrate the conclusion of my 45th year of life.  It was also a good excuse to try out the new travel-mapping feature in our Highway☆ mobile app.

Highway 45 begins in the small town of Knight’s Landing in Yolo County, so I first had to schlep up there via Interstate 80 and then turn north on Highway 113 near U.C. Davis.  113 is a major freeway at this point, but a bit further north it narrows to a two-lane country road before reaching the junction with 45.

CA 45 in Knight's Landing, CA

Knight’s Landing was actually a very small but cute town along the Sacramento River. Before embarking on the formal part of the trip, I stopped along the levee at Front Street to view the continuation of Highway 113 across the river.  Front Street was rather beaten up compared to the rest of the town center, perhaps due to the nature of the levee or to discourage unnecessary driving, but it made for a nice little walk.

I then returned to the car and finally turned onto Highway 45, heading northwest out of town.

The highway zig-zagged on a grid between fields on the western side of the Sacramento River, but far enough for the river to mostly remain out of sight.  But there were some lovely wide-open farmland vistas, made more dramatic by the bands of clouds in the sky marking what was a lovely day after a week of dreary weather.

It is when the landscape opened up that I was able to fully relax into the trip.  There is always a point along the journey during which stresses, mundane or otherwise, start to melt away and the road, landscape, and solitude take over the mind.  As Highway 45 is remarkably well signed, there was no ambiguity or uncertainty.  The result is a sense of flow and well being that allows one to both think about other ideas, like music, while remaining fully engaged in the moment.  It is something I have experienced many walking the streets of San Francisco, but not lately.  I certainly hope it isn’t gone – as much as I enjoy these long excursions to other regions, I would love to return to the sense of external flow in my own community as well.  Perhaps it is the familiarity or the many stresses and dramas, but I hope to regain it.

The highway turned due north in Colusa County, providing great views of the Sutter Buttes, considered to be one of the worlds smallest mountain rangers.

The Buttes are a small circle of volcanic lava domes that rise suddenly from the rather flat Sacramento Valley.  The contrast is fascinating, and I would love to come back and explore the geology at a warmer time of year.  Unfortunately, public access to the Buttes remains limited as far I can tell. (If any readers have any advice or new information about public access to the Sutter Buttes, please share in the comments.)

At this point, Highway 45 comes closer to the river, and between Grand Island and Grimes, comes right up against levees, before turning north again.  It is not surprising to see such high levees, as the entire region seems like a giant flood waiting to happen.

Further north, we join with California Highway 20, a major east-west highway in this rural part of the state connecting to Yuba City to the east and to Lake County far to the west.  The road became wider, smoother, and significantly busier as we continued on the duplex into the town of Colusa.

CA 20 and CA 45 in Colusa, California

Colusa is a picturesque town on the river, with a small but nice town center and a quiet park along the levee and riverbank.  It had warmed up considerably since I last got out in Knight’s Landing, so stopped for a bit to enjoy the sight and sound of the river.  You can see a bit in this Instagram video.

Sacramento River in Colusa, CA

A post shared by CatSynth / Amanda C (@catsynth) on

Nearby I found The Tap Room, a small pub that had a large selection of beers including some local brews.  I don’t think they had Sutter Butte Brewing, but they did have some selections from Berryessa brewing including this IPA.

IPA at the Tap Room, Colusa California

In the enjoyment of the trip, I had completely forgotten that it was St. Patrick’s Day.  But I was quickly reminded by the bartender who was decked in bright green regalia and informed me of the holiday pub crawl that would be happening that evening.  This was the talk of the local patrons who started trickling in as the afternoon wore on.  Everyone was friendly and welcoming, but a night of drinking was not going to be compatible with my plan to get back to the city safely at a reasonable hour.  So I bid farewell and headed out on Highway 20 back to I-5 and I-505 to return to the Bay Area.

Tired but accomplished, I crossed the Bay Bridge back into San Francisco and home later that evening.  That would usually be the end of the story, but after resting, we made the last-minute decision to go out again that night.  So I found myself getting dressed up and heading back over the bridge for the third time to Oakland to see Chrome with Helios Creed.  We met up with quite a few friends at the show and had a great time.  You can see a bit of Chrome’s performance in this CatSynth TV.

It was a great day of diverse geography and experiences, albeit a long one.  Not every day can or should be like this, but hope there are more to come this year…

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

Highway☆ on Apple App Store .   Highway☆ for Android

Interstate 5, California: The Road to (and from) NAMM

At least since 2010, all of my trips to NAMM have been road trips, heading east from San Francisco on I-580 to meet Interstate 5 for the long trek south through Los Angeles to Orange County.

CatSynth on Interstate 5

I-5 takes a more direct route through the sparsely populated western side of the Central Valley, compared to CA 99 (former US 99) that connects the major towns and cities of the region, including Fresno and Bakersfield.  The small communities that one does pass are related to travel on the interstate itself or to the farms and orchards that dominate the landscape between stretches of emptier space.

It is a long trip, and one that I know many people would find boring.  But for me, it is something I look forward to, an integral part of the experience along with the show itself, the after-parties and all the other little adventures. This year there was the added fun of testing out Highway☆ on the road trip, but even without that heightened sense of purpose, it is simply an enjoyable “flow experience.”  Once over the Altamont Pass and into the Central Valley, stresses begin to fade as the mostly straight line of the road and the low stimulation of I-5 takes over.  It may seem “empty” but there is still is just enough detail along the route to provide balance.  After many years, I have come to know just about every major junction and many of the other details, such as the names of the small communities along the highway.  By the time I arrive in the Los Angeles basin, I am recharged, enough to even remain unfazed by the notorious traffic!

The return trip along a nearly identical route is similarly an opportunity for psychic calm and flow after the nonstop overstimulation of NAMM (I do spend a half day after the show either with friends or at a museum as part of the decompression process before getting back on “The 5”).  This year was no different, as I headed back with a tailwind and sense of optimism.   Life seemed calm, free, but also filled with curiosity and excitement about professional opportunities in technology, music, and even travel.  That feeling lasted into our arrival back in San Francisco, at least until my second bout of this year’s awful flu kicked in, along with some other stressful local responsibilities.  One of the mental exercises to help through the ensuing week was to focus on how my mind and body responded positively to the I-5 trip (and to the many tendrils of travel in and around L.A.) and thought experiments on how to capture that sense of enjoyment and calm even when not traveling down a straight and empty stretch of road.  I come back again to flow experience and how much that seems to be a product of solitude for me, but it can also come in playing together with musicians at the highest levels.  And then there are situations where flow is stymied or non-existent.  It is important to recognize both, and I hope to explore these topics more in upcoming articles.

See more of Interstate 5 in California and many other fine places across North America in our Highway☆ app, available on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store.

Highway☆ on Apple App Store .   Highway☆ for Android

Sick Days, Sam Sam, Studio, and Superb Owl

It’s been a slow recovery from our latest bout of this year’s influenza and “NAMMthrax,” but we are getting there slowly.   Indeed, I have been well enough to spend more time working in the studio again.  Of course, if I am in the studio there is a good chance Sam Sam will be there, too.

Sam Sam in the studio

It’s always a delight to have her around.  I think she is getting used to all the weird electronic sounds just as Luna did.  As a more social cat, I think she mostly just enjoys being near the action.  I do sometimes feel guilty when she gets comfy under the main console and I want to use the Nord.  It’s a studio musician’s version of the cat-in-lap dilemma.

We are going to move forward with some video and music work today, as body and energy permit.   We are also doing our part for today’s mass ritual here in the United States with our Superb Owl.

We hope you all have an enjoyable day, however you chose to fill it!

CatSynth Pic: Just One of Those Afternoons

This picture, which comes to us via the Facebook group Classic FM, does reflect our mood on this dreary afternoon. Making the best of it with warmth and cats.

Weekend Cat Blogging with Sam Sam: Sick Days and Introspection

The new year has brought plague and pestilence to CatSynth HQ, as I succumbed to the current vaccine-resistant strain of the flu.  It’s been mostly bed rest since Wednesday, but fortunately, I have Sam Sam nearby.

She has been affectionate and attentive, more so than usual.  I suspect that is also due to my having started working in an office again after being home with her for most of December.  That’s a story for another time.  In the meantime, we are enjoying one another’s company, even if I am low on energy and sometimes a bit delirious.  Here is a closeup of her.

In a way, the illness and rest have extended the period of solitude and introspection from the last weeks of 2017, which I do not mind at all.  It’s given me more time to think about the vague ideas and plans that I have for this year, though it postpones getting started on any execution.  On the negative side, I had to cancel a gig today in Sacramento, extending what I call the “Sacramento Curse” where every planned show in that city since the beginning of 2014 has been missed for one reason or another (the first and most dramatic being one that was canceled due to a massive fire near the venue – fortunately, no one was hurt and the venue was fine afterwards).  It has also slowed down activity that requires looking at screens for prolonged periods.  I made an exception to get this post out.

Lying down and letting one’s mind wander with a slight fever does lead to interesting thoughts.  A different experience from The Disintegration of Thought during periods of health, but interesting nonetheless.  Some are complete nonsense, but others are consistent with introspection and what it takes to try and be happy and healthy in these challenging times.  The roles of fear and caution are part of that internal dialog, as well as creativity in general.   Perhaps I will have more to say about them as I return to health, perhaps not.

Farewell to 2017

2017 in review

Once again, it is time for our end-of-year collage and review. So many images to choose from in such a busy 2017 that took us in so many directions at once, both outward and inward.

At the end of 2016, I was still reeling from the loss of Luna and the election.  But I did welcome Sam Sam into my life and also promised myself that I would prosper and thrive in the new terrifying Trump era.  And we did, focusing on moving forward with the things from 2016 that did go well.  Lots of new music as a solo performer, with my new band CDP, and with Vacuum Tree Head.   There are now three CatSynth-branded apps for both iOS and Android, and a fourth on the way.  We launched CatSynth TV, with 22 videos under our belt since October.  And Sam Sam has blossomed into a sassy and thoroughly spoiled cat whom we love dearly.

If there is a word of caution on the personal and professional fronts, it is perhaps that 2017 was too much.  After a strong first half of the year through July, I scaled back on live performance to focus on other priorities.  I regret that, but it was also the reality of the many things going on.  I wish the apps, blog, and video channels were progressing faster, but it’s as fast as we can go with our myriad other responsibilities.  The last couple months, while still rich with experience, have been an exercise in paring back and trying to focus on the highest priorities; and also focus on health, self-care, and well being.  These are all very challenging, but I’m grateful to have the help of loved ones.

We cannot ignore the fact that our rebound in 2017 after two difficult years took place amidst a dark pall over the country and world.  Many friends have suffered amidst the monumental forces of hurricanes, flooding, fires, and human foolishness.  The latter is most visible in the face of the current regime that continues to embarrass and threaten us.  These are things we have to be vigilant about as we move in 2018.  I do feel personally in the cross-hairs on multiple fronts, so I hope we can continue to survive and prosper as well as we did in 2017, and maybe at the end of 2018 we will look back and saw how the world became at least a slightly better place.

It is also interesting to look back to our end-of-year post from 2007, ten years ago.  It was a dark, cold time amidst major life changes – I couldn’t have imagined then what life would be like now.  Will we feel the same way in 2027?  And will there still be a CatSynth then?  Only time will tell…

Seasons Greetings from CatSynth!

Sam Sam and red sock

We at CatSynth with everyone a very happy winter holiday season, whichever holidays you celebrate!  Sam Sam likes to celebrate the holidays relaxing with her favorite Christmas-themed toy.

For us, Hannukah ended a little less than a week ago.  Here is our eighth-night photo with our musically themed menorah.

On the winter solstice, we were out at a show that is featured in our latest CatSynth TV – more on that later.  As for today, Christmas, we are going to make like Sam Sam and relax.  And later maybe have Chinese food and watch a movie 😺