Fun with Highways: Christopher Street, New York

The West Village is an odd place. Streets cross one another at odd angles, leading to situations where numbered streets intersect, and small triangular slivers of park space emerge. One such location is the park where Christopher Street, Grove Street, West 4th, and 7th Avenue all meet.

It’s a sliver of a park, but it includes the Christopher Street subway stop for the 1 IRT, a stop I have found most useful in recent years. And this angular collision of roads also has another significance.

On the northern side of Christopher Street is the Stonewall Inn. The riots 50 years ago turned from a notorious Mafia-run bar for the most outcast members of the queer community to perhaps the sacred site in the world for the LGBTQ community and members of sexual minorities.


Stonewall Inn
, site of the 1969 Stonewall riots, New York City, USA On the Window: „We homosexuals plead with our people to please help maintain peaceful and quiet conduct on the streets of the Village—Mattachine“ (Source: David Carter: Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution, St. Martin’s Press, 2004, ISBN 0-312-34269-1, S. 143)

As people converge on lower Manhattan for New York Pride and World Pride – and we gather ourselves here in San Francisco, it’s worth looking back at what happened 50 years ago.

The age of the clientele ranged between the upper teens and early thirties, and the racial mix was evenly distributed among white, black, and Hispanic patrons.[57][59] Because of its even mix of people, its location, and the attraction of dancing, the Stonewall Inn was known by many as “the gay bar in the city”.[60] Police raids on gay bars were frequent—occurring on average once a month for each bar. Many bars kept extra liquor in a secret panel behind the bar, or in a car down the block, to facilitate resuming business as quickly as possible if alcohol was seized.[8][10] Bar management usually knew about raids beforehand due to police tip-offs, and raids occurred early enough in the evening that business could commence after the police had finished.[61] During a typical raid, the lights were turned on, and customers were lined up and their identification cards checked. Those without identification or dressed in full drag were arrested; others were allowed to leave. Some of the men, including those in drag, used their draft cards as identification. Women were required to wear three pieces of feminine clothing, and would be arrested if found not wearing them. Employees and management of the bars were also typically arrested.[61] The period immediately before June 28, 1969, was marked by frequent raids of local bars—including a raid at the Stonewall Inn on the Tuesday before the riots[62]—and the closing of the Checkerboard, the Tele-Star, and two other clubs in Greenwich Village.[63][64]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stonewall_riots#Stonewall_Inn

What is notable is what the offenses were. The issues were not so much sexual practices as traditional gender norms. Women without at least three pieces of feminine clothing, men in drag were the targets. And khas vishalom they might even be dancing! It was all about control and conformity. I look back at it with a mixture of bewilderment, pity, disgust, and even contempt for people who were frightened and upset by these behaviors that they would criminalize it violently. And lest we get too smug, violence continues to this date in the United States, most notably the murders transgender women of color. And the attack on conformity is something to be celebrated rather than resisted – indeed that was part of what attracted to this world decades before I knew that I myself was a member of its motley lot.

Many are using the occasion of the 50th anniversary to remind everyone that Stonewall was a riot, a moment of fighting back, rather than simply a large parade. But the parades and celebrations are great, too, as a reminder of what has changed. Indeed, one of the most criticized elements of Pride in this decade of the 21st century is just how commercial and “corporate” it has become. Sure, it’s tacky at times and easy to be cynical about some corporations’ motives. But the point is that mainstream businesses want to be seen as being on the side of the LGBTQ community, the “right” side, and the “profitable” side. One day it will be those who were so frightened by and bothered by these expressions of love and individual identity that they must respond with violence and law who will be pushed to the margins. And push them we shall, but it a way that still preserves their dignity and individuality, lest we end up making similar mistakes.

Tiananmen Square Anniversaries

Ten years ago, I frequently traveling to China for work, and found myself in Beijing during the week of the twentieth anniversary of the protests and massacre in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. As the thirtieth anniversary is upon us, it seems a good opportunity to look back at that experience.

Tiananmen Square

Tiananmen Square is a YUGE space, mostly empty. It is bounded on the north by the Tiananmen Gate to the Forbidden City. On one side is the Palace of the Republic, the seat of the Chinese government, on the other is another imposing government building that I’m pretty sure was the culture ministry. To the south, before several temples, is the imposing tomb of Mao Zedong.

In front of the Forbidden City
Chilling out in front of Palace of the Republic
Gearing up for Expo 2010

What was most notable was how ordinary things were, just a mixture of Beijingers and tourists wandering about like any other day. Indeed the most subversive thing I saw during that visit was my own photo with our mascot in front of Mao’s portrait.

Mao and “mao”

There was almost no mention of the anniversary in any media. The big story around town seemed to be the preparations for Expro 2010 in Shanghai. One English-language newspaper had an article about the “last of the 1989 hooligans” being released from prison, but that was about it. My colleagues, who are younger and would have been small children at the time, barely even knew about it except as rumors. One did check out a video via internet tunneling and was shocked to know that her country could have done something like that – but she did accept that it was true.

It’s hard to say if my experience of young Chinese encountering Tiananmen Square as we know it is at all representative, as my friends and colleagues tended to be more educated, cosmopolitan, and a bit jaded. Indeed, one young woman from the more conservative countryside whom I befriended in Suzhou on that same trip seemed to be less cynical and more toeing the party line about respect for authority (and reverence for Mao). I suspect things are even tighter and more controlled now, given the current Chinese leadership under Xi Jinping. Only time will tell how the country comes to reckon with this particular chapter of its past.

I.M. Pei in Suzhou and Beyond

The second of our remembrances focuses on the architect I.M. Pei, who passed away this week. A true champion of modernism worldwide, I have admired his work both from afar and close up.

Perhaps the most vivid memory with his work was from the Suzhou Museum in Suzhou, China. It may not be his best known work, but it is a masterpiece in itself and a love letter to his hometown.

The exterior facade combines Pei’s trademark geometry and minimalism with more the more traditional designs and tropes of an adjacent palace and Suzhou’s famous gardens. It also makes extensive use of water as an architectural element both inside and outside the building.

The simple geometric shapes, as well as the use of water, stone, and glass, gave the entire complex a very warm and welcoming feeling, even as the rain came down around me. Inside, the simplicity of the galleries left ample mental space to enjoy the exhibits and artifacts, while the atrium was a work of art itself.

I admire the way he often brought modernist aesthetics and principles to traditional spaces. This is perhaps most dramatically seen in his glass pyramid that anchors the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Napoleon courtyard of the Louvre museum at night time, with Ieoh Ming Pei’s pyramid in the middle. Benh LIEU SONG [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The pyramid is perfect, a stark contrast to the severe facades around it, and perfectly balanced in size and space. While I know many traditionalists have hated on this addition over the years, I for one love it. I am an unapologetic modernist and often find myself sparring with traditionalists even here in San Francisco.

Pei’s modernism was intended to integrate with its surroundings, even as it stood in contrast to it. For example, he wanted his stark geometric design for the Mesa Laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (U.S.A.) to look “as if it were carved out of the mountain”.

Until reading others’ tributes and remembrances, I had forgotten about his role in the Javits Center in New York, a building I am quite familiar with both inside and out. It is a massive and imposing structure but crisscrossed with triangular details that remind me of the Suzhou Museum (built 20 years later). The project was plagued by challenges and controversies, and “during the inauguration ceremonies, however, neither [James] Freed nor Pei was recognized for their role in the project.” [source]

Jim.henderson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Triangles do seem to be a major recurring theme in his work, and perhaps part of why it appeals to me even within the scope of other modernists. Triangles are powerful and strong, and the often stand out in Western spaces dominated by rectangles. These elements also played a role East Building for the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., a project is loved by many, but similar to the Louvre, criticized by some traditionalists.

The building is a masterpiece of minimalism. Even some of those traditionalist critics have grown to love it in the years since it opened in 1978. And it serves its purpose, both as a home to art and a work of art itself.

The growing popularity of art museums presented unique challenges to the architecture. Mellon and Pei both expected large crowds of people to visit the new building, and they planned accordingly. To this end, he designed a large lobby roofed with enormous skylights. Individual galleries are located along the periphery, allowing visitors to return after viewing each exhibit to the spacious main room. A large mobile sculpture by American artist Alexander Calder was later added to the lobby.[93] Pei hoped the lobby would be exciting to the public in the same way as the central room of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The modern museum, he said later, “must pay greater attention to its educational responsibility, especially to the young.”[94]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I._M._Pei#National_Gallery_East_Building,_Washington,_DC

Defending modernism, even after a century, remains a tireless job. As we lose champions like I.M. Pei, it falls to those of us in later generations to make sure this beauty is preserved and celebrated.

RIP Tardar Sauce, aka Grumpy Cat

In the past 24 hours, we have heard about the passing of two of our heroes, who hailed from different walks of life and even different species. In the first of our two remembrances, we bid farewell to the beloved Tardar Sauce, aka “Grumpy Cat”, has passed away. This was posted on Grumpy Cat’s official Facebook page this morning.

Despite care from top professionals, as well as from her very loving family, Grumpy encountered complications from a recent urinary tract infection and unfortunately become too tough for her to overcome. She passed away peacefully on the morning of Tuesday, May 14, at home in the arms of her mommy, Tabatha.

Besides being our baby and a cherished member of the family, Grumpy Cat has helped millions of people smile all around the world, even when times were tough.

https://twitter.com/RealGrumpyCat/status/1129310647458467840

Tardar Sauce’s feline dwarfism gave her face a sunken appearance, that together with her markings always made her look “grumpy” and launched a great many instantly usable internet memes. Even former President Barack Obama channeled Grumpy Cat on at least one occasion.

In reality, she seemed like a very sweet and docile cat, at least in the television appearances that we saw. She became quite the celebrity and her face graced many publications and toys, including this stuffed version of Grumpy Cat that has now sat on my desk at home and three different workplaces.

It’s always sad when a family says goodbye to a beloved feline companion – it’s a pain I know well. We wish Grumpy’s human and feline family our thoughts and sincerest condolences for their loss, and will do our part to keep her memory alive.

Owlsynth Pics for Superb Owl Day

We at CatSynth feel there is no better way to celebrate Superb Owl Day than with “owlsynth pics”. Here is our stuffed owl atop our main modular system.

And with our trusty Roland Boutique VP-03 vocoder.

And with our Arturia MiniBrute 2.

(Definitely need to tidy up a bit there.)

Owls are quite captivating as they are so different from other birds, even from other birds of prey. We all know their unique front-facing faces and nocturnal behavior. But they also have amazing auditory capabilities.

Both the cat and the Barn Owl have much more sensitive hearing than the human in the range of about 0.5 to 10 kHz. The cat and Barn Owl have a similar sensitivity up to approximately 7 kHz. Beyond this point, the cat continues to be sensitive, but the Barn Owl’s sensitivity declines sharply.

Some Owl species have asymmetrically set ear openings (i.e. one ear is higher than the other) – in particular, the strictly nocturnal species, such as the Barn Owl or the Tengmalm’s (Boreal) Owl. These species have a very pronounced facial disc, which acts like a “radar dish”, guiding sounds into the ear openings. The shape of the disc can be altered at will, using special facial muscles. Also, an Owl’s bill is pointed downward, increasing the surface area over which the sound waves are collected by the facial disc. In 4 species (Ural, Great Grey, Boreal/Tengmalm’s & Saw-whet), the ear asymmetry is actually in the temporal parts of the skull, giving it a “lop-sided” appearance.

Owls and Hearing – The Owl Pages

We at CatSynth hope you all have a fine and enriching Superb Owl Day!

Fun with Highways: Belen, New Mexico

On this dreary, rainy afternoon, we turn our attention southeast to the small town of Belen, New Mexico.

Belen is near the geographical center of New Mexico, south of Albuquerque.  It is wedged between Interstate 25 to the west and the Rio Grande to the east. Business Loop 25 serves as the town’s Main Street, as well as the terminus for New Mexico state roads 314309, and 109.  In its past, it served as a major railroad hub, even earning the nickname “Hub City.” 

New Mexico is a place steeped in a unique character, bringing together Native American, Spanish, and Northern European heritage.  Its landscape is bleak and beautiful.  It has attracted generations of artists.  Judy Chicago is one of those artists, and she chose to make her home in Belen.

Chicago is one of the founders of feminist art, a collection of art movements that serve to both create and critique art from the perspective of women.  Early work by Chicago and others in this movement often turned assumptions upside down, sometimes slyly but sometimes not so subtly inserting womanhood into all types of artistic practice.  But she has also been involved in work beyond feminism, notably The Holocaust Project.

Perhaps her best-known piece is The Dinner Party, which is now a permanent installation at the Brooklyn Museum in New York.  I have had the opportunity to view it on multiple occasions.

The Dinner Party imagines women artists, thinkers, and leaders throughout history sitting at a large triangular table.  Each of the place settings bears the name of an accomplished woman and the contents of her plate represent a stylized version of her accomplished.  Additionally, the porcelain tiles surrounding the table identify nearly 1000 other women.  The plates and their contents are often described as representing female sexuality through vulva-like, floral, and butterfly forms.

Returning from Brooklyn to Belen, we pick up the story in this weekend’s New York Times, about an effort by the town to host a museum dedicate to its famous resident and the art she creates and supports.  This would seem to be a slam dunk for a town that appears to have fallen on hard times, but it apparently generated quite a bit of opposition.

The quarreling reflects not just the power of Ms. Chicago’s art to ignite emotions, but also the limits of tolerance in New Mexico, a state long known as a welcoming mecca for artists. Evangelical Christian leaders in Belen have mobilized to thwart the project, calling Ms. Chicago’s art pornographic and indecent.

“I love fine art, but I would never want to see a vagina hanging on my wall,” said John K. Thompson, 62, a retired stockbroker.

[link]

It seems odd that the state that celebrates Georgia O’Keefe would have a problem with vaginal imagery in art.   So why this place, and why now?

Paula Castillo [a sculptor who was born and raised in Belen] believes that the friction reflects the town’s own evolving dynamics…Belen has long been home to Hispanic families whose roots in New Mexico go back centuries. Religious affiliations are in flux, but many remain members of the Roman Catholic Church, which has not voiced opposition to the museum.

But after meeting with pastors from the evangelical churches opposing the museum, Ms. Castillo said she concluded that much of the resistance appeared to come from relative newcomers who brought more conservative sensibilities with them.

“There’s a level of nuance to what’s going on that’s been neglected,” Ms. Castillo said. “Belen and the rest of New Mexico can be very welcoming, but it’s easy to forget the influence that some churches now have.”

Indeed, I had come to think that despite the power of conservative Christians in our politics, the somewhat cartoonish cries of “indecency” in art were a sad joke from my past.   Not surprising, this has been an upsetting experience for Chicago herself.  I can only imagine what it feels like to feel welcomed in a community, only to have part of that community turn against you…

Responding to the critics, Ms. Chicago and Mr. Woodman in November withdrew their offer to work with Belen’s municipal government on the proposed museum. “The whole experience has been very painful,” said Ms. Chicago, explaining how she followed the debate over the museum and her work on social media while she was traveling in Brazil

It seems like a potential opportunity missed, especially as one sees how embracing minimalist Donald Judd put Marfa, Texas, on the map and has made it a cultural destination.  Indeed, Marfa is on my bucket list, especially after seeing it featured in one of the last episodes of Anthony Bourdain’s show.  Whether Belen gives up its chance to be another Marfa remains to be seen.

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

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Wordless Wednesday: San Francisco Under Smoke

Eerie light in San Francisco at sunset this Saturday as the city was engulfed in thick smoke from the Camp Fire in Butte County.

Military Cats on Veterans Day

On this Veterans Day, we salute some of the cats who have served in their countries armed forces. 

First up is Able Seacat Simon,

Simon has the distinction of being the only cat awarded the PDSA Dickin Medal after being wounded during a battle on the Yangtze River.  From his Wikipedia page:

The badly wounded cat crawled on deck, and was rushed to the medical bay, where the ship’s surviving medical staff cleaned his burns, and removed four pieces of shrapnel, but he was not expected to last the night. He managed to survive, however, and after a period of recovery, returned to his former duties in spite of the indifference he faced from the new captain Lieutenant Commander John Kerans. While anchored in the river, the ship had become overrun with rats, and Simon took on the task of removing them with vigour, as well as raising the morale of the sailors.

When Simon died in 1949 he was buried with full military honors and lies in PDSA Animal Cemetery in Ilford.

Cats in the military have most often been ship cats, who have perform the practical function of ridding the ships of rodents and other potential pests, as well as boosting the crew’s morale.  You can find many examples in this post from the Naval History Blog

“War Veteran – ‘Pooli’, who rates three service ribbons and four battle stars, shows she can still get into her old uniform as she prepares to celebrate her 15th birthday. The cat served aboard an attack transport during World War II.” Los Angeles, 1959.

Cats have also served on land.  Pfc Hammer served with an Army unit in Iraq in 2004.  

The cat, dubbed Pfc. Hammer, experienced the war right alongside the soldiers. He jumped at the sound of nearby gunfire and unexpected explosions when they did. He would always take the soldiers’ minds off of the war at just the right time.


During a mortar attack on the unit Hammer ran to the bunker with everyone else. The nearest soldier picked up the cat and tucked the feline inside his body armor for safe keeping until the attack was over.

http://petslady.com/articles/hammer_time_cat_iraq_62910

In the true spirit of “no soldier left behind”, the unit made sure that Hammer was able to come back to the U.S. with them.  With the help of  Alley Cat Allies and Military Mascots, he was relocated stateside and no lives with fellow veteran Staff Sgt. Rick Bousfield and his family.

If you have stories of cats who have served in war, we would love to hear from you in the comments below.

Post-Election Thoughts and Getting Back to Normal Life

We at CatSynth are political nerds/enthusiasts, and also believe in civic participation for the greater good.  So elections are always an exciting time.  Yesterday was no exception as we transitioned from our daily routine to preparing to host friends to watch the returns.  There was an electricity in the air that went beyond our unseasonably warm weather.  I took a brief break to rest and meditate before jumping in to watching coverage and interacting on Twitter.  So did Sam Sam.

In the end, it was like a normal election.  Some important things went very well – like the takeover of the House.  Some things didn’t.  The Senate results imply more trouble for the judiciary, often the most important thing.  A few results were heartbreaking, like Beto O’Rourke losing in a close race to the exceptionally odious Ted Cruz in Texas, but I took solace in some other defaults, notably almost as odious Scott Walker, Kris Kobach, Dana Rohrabacher (from Orange County here in California).  I even take a bit of perverse pleasure in watching the infamous Kim Davis go down to defeat. My home state of New York seems as dysfunctional as ever, but perhaps with a better chance to clean things up than they have had in a while.

The day after, one reflects on the mix of results and moves on with life.  It’s another exceptionally warm, sunny day for November in San Francisco, and I’m eager to get back to cats, synthesizers, music, and art.  It’s a far cry from the day after the 2016 election when it truly felt like it could have been our last.  I was working in an office on Market Street, with US flags fluttering on tops and sides of many buildings – it was tragic, heartbreaking, fearful, by far the worst I had experienced in my lifetime.  And it was just days after Luna left us, so the experience was even darker and devoid the comfort of my beloved cat.  This time I woke up much happier, as there was more good news awaiting than when I went to bed the previous night.  And Sam Sam was there to jump on the bed and remind me that it was time to get up and feed her.  There is much unfinished business on all fronts, but that’s ok.  Overall, it feels a bit more hopeful, a bit more optimistic.

Before we move back to our regularly scheduled topics, a few quick thoughts…

  • Close to home, I was happy to see that San Francisco’s Prop E – funding for arts – passed.  This is great news for organizations that I am involved with, whether as a board member, artist, audience member, or reviewer.
  • The people of Massachusetts affirmed the rights of trans people and other gender minorities in a ballot proposition.  It’s great to see support at the ballot box, but it should have never been there in the first place.  California’s Prop 8 (2008) may seem like ancient history, but the memory is still pretty raw…
  • If anything, the rural/metropolitan-area divide seems starker than ever.  We at CatSynth are city creatures, but also love many aspects of rural America, and it’s sad to see that division get even worse.  That’s one I would like to write more about, but with a little distance from political events.
  • Another is the continued push-and-shove around “nationalism”.  For me, it’s an unequivocally dirty word, and it’s frustrating to see centrists offering bromides to nationalism even as its most sinister aspects are ascendant at home and around the world.  I still believe in cosmopolitanism and the idea of an “anti-nation”.  But this is another topic that requires careful thought for a future article.

Transphobia and Misogyny

In general, I have been fortunate.  Transphobia is rare in my own life.  I was able to come out and transition on the job, I have supporting friends and family, a nice home, a sweet cat…I have not experienced any trouble in the more conservative places I enjoy traveling.   In many ways, plain-old sexism and the increasing menace of misogyny have been a much bigger issue .  This is why it can be so jarring when it does reach me, as it did over the past two weeks.  There were three punches: the statement that existing civil rights laws on sex don’t apply to gender identity; the active support of businesses’ right to discriminate against transgender employees and applicants; and most sinister of all, the attempt to hard-define gender as fixed at birth, erasing the lives of trans people and taking away the rights and privileges we currently enjoy.  This last one is the one that worries me the most – no, they probably won’t yank my passport or my social security card, but sadly I can’t trust them not to.

I don’t think the buffoon at the top of the executive branch cares one way or another about trans people, but he certainly does like to tweak his base, which seems to take particular pleasure in things that hurt women, trans people, gay men, and the like.  That is the cynical answer to “why now”, but why this seems to be a particular obsession is a more complex question.  I don’t pretend to have definitive answers, but I would point to the prevailing and growing misogyny.  It’s not new, but it’s been particularly ugly of late.  Basically, the recently concluded court fight made the statement that a woman’s pain from sexual assault is not as important as getting a man into a position where he will uphold the traditional authority of powerful men over, well, everything.  They hate women who challenge them, and they hate men who are “not with the program.”  This explains why it is gay men and trans women who bear so much of the anti-LGBTQ violence worldwide.  Both groups are perceived as men who are deviating from the program, and therefore as much a threat as women who defy their authority.

Up to this point, I have focused on patriarchy and misogyny without looking at religion, but it’s impossible not to see the interconnection.  The Abrahamic faiths are practiced by millions upon millions of wonderful people, and their worship and rituals are often very beautiful, but their scriptures are all deeply misogynistic to the core.  It’s not surprising that the fundamentalists of each are the easiest people to rile up against women and sexual minorities.  It’s time we finally recognize this and not treat it so gently.  When civil rights are taken away from LGBTQ folks, they lose everything.  When they are restored, no one loses anything.  The deeply conservative and religious claim they are victimized but we must at every step ask them to list how they are harmed.  Except for a few cases of violence which should be dealt with accordingly, they lose nothing.  What does a county clerk lose when she hands a marriage license to a same-sex couple?  Nothing.  What does the baker lose?  Nothing.  If they fear they lose their faith by participating in civil society, it’s probably time to question the strength of their faith, and not the lives of others.

And progressives who claim to be allies need to prioritize this.  No more excusing bad behavior for economic issues (again I could write a book about how some white progressives see only class and forget race, gender, or sexuality).  No more cynically complaining about “pinkwashing” when a large company does the right thing, as several did in North Carolina two years ago.  Don’t just say you stand with us, make it your priority!  And don’t tolerate those who stand against us, whether TERFs, religious communities that claim persecution, or otherwise.

Oh yes, and please do VOTE.  But that’s just a start…