Matzoh Man and Thoughts on Passover

Passover is, perhaps, the most “visible” Jewish holiday for me. After all, we have featured the Matzoh Man in many photos and short video clips here on CatSynth, and now twice in a row for CatSynth TV.

For this year’s episode, we took audio output from our mechanical friend via a contact mic and sent it into the KOMA Field Kit. We then split the signal into audio, which was run through our modular synthesizer – specifically, the Rossum Electro-music Morpheus – and the Field Kit’s own envelope follow and actuator section, ultimately driving the solenoid. It was a fun little demo both to make and to watch.

Matzoh Man joins the synthesizers in a ritual of devotion and irreverence.

I also included a little demo of the ritual diet, with matzoh, prepared horseradish, and Kedem grape juice. But beyond that, anything is fair game for me during Passover as long as there are no piggies or shellfish, or leavened bread. No beer allowed, but non-kosher wine and spirits are fine. It becomes a bit of a game to see if for eight days I can follow these simple rules. To someone more Orthodox, or even the least bit devout, this simple approach could be transgressive, or even blasphemous. But from my point of view, not only is it plenty but I also sometimes wonder why I both at all. It’s not like I believe in the literal truth of the Biblical story, or have any fear of or respect for any religious authorities.

Somehow, though, I still feel compelled to participate. And not just participate, flaunt it, reminding friends that I can’t share pastries or bread products over the week because I’m Jewish. That feels important to remind people of. And it sometimes makes its way into my music, through titles like Kislev and Donershtik (Yiddish for Thursday) or organizing structures in stories. It’s fun. It’s “cool”. But also it feels more urgent, as the world around us seems more anti-Semitic now than it did during my youth. I’m deeply bothered by the attacks that seem to be increasing against Jews, both verbal and violent. But I’m also concerned with an increasing religiosity and sense of obedience among many who identify as Jewish. If being Jewish is just about being religious, or being obedient to a text or patriarchal authorities, then it does truly become time to ask “why bother?”. But for now, we do our best to both persevere and enjoy.

Chag Pesach Semeach.

Fun with Highways: California 99 and 198

The ride back from NAMM is usually an uneventful straight shot up I-5 from Los Angeles towards San Francisco. But I found myself making good time, and in a mood for a bit of exploration – not to mention an opportunity to rack up more routes on my Highway☆ app – so I decided to try something different. I decided to follow California Highway 99 as it splits off from I-5.

CA 99 takes a more easterly route than I-5 and connects to the major towns and cities of the Central Valley. A stretch in the northern part of the Central Valley was featured in our recent CatSynth TV Episode 99, but the southern part largely remained unexplored outside the immediate vicinity of Bakersfield (where it intersects CA 58). So much of the highway was new.

That southernmost section was, to put it bluntly, rather sad. The road is narrow, bumpy, and crowded. The landscape was dotted with a mixture of fields, run-down housing developments, and strip malls. And the sky was smoggy with an unhealthy yellow hue. But the afterglow of our most successful NAMM show to date along with the spirit of exploration gave a level of joy to the experience. At Visalia, I decided to turn off and head west onto California Highway 198.

If 99 was a bit of a cluttered and bumpy mess, 198 was the opposite: a pair of smooth straight lines cutting through farmland with sparse development. It began as an expressway but soon turned into a full-on freeway in Kings County as we headed toward Hanford and then on to Lemoore, where we intersected with Highway 41 in a major interchange. A few years ago, I had seen it from the perspective of Highway 41 and mentioned it a post at that time.

There is something strangely fascinating about the island of small towns sitting at the northern edge of dry endorheic Lake Tulare. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it is strong enough to inspire a story line and possible writing project that I work through in my mind when I have trouble sleeping at night. We will see if anything comes of it.

Past Lemoore Naval Air Station, 198 narrows to a small two-lane route, and becomes significantly less interesting. My mind shifts to the story on the radio about people whose altruism goes to extreme lengths, including a man in India who founded and nurtured a growing community for people with leprosy while putting himself and his family (including two young children) at risk; and a couple who kept adopting more and more children while having less time and attention for their older biological and adopted children. These drives can be seen as incredibly caring and generous, but I also wondered if they were a bit pathological – indeed, the seeming lack of concern for others affected as they pursued their extreme altruism seemed to be mark of a sociopath.

Heading west on the narrow section of CA 198, we approach Interstate 5 again. This is, however, a spot infamous to north-south travelers for its offending aroma. It turns out the infamous small at the Coalinga junction of I-5 and CA 198 comes from the gigantic Harris ranch and feedlot. It only got worse after turning north onto I-5, but soon enough it was behind me and a not-too-long road to San Francisco remained ahead.

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

Highway☆ on the Apple App Store
Highway☆ for Android

Weekend Cat Blogging with Sam Sam: Sick Days and Stormy Weather

It happens almost every year. After returning home from NAMM, a few days later I fall ill with what we affectionately call the “NAMMthrax”. I suppose it’s not surprising, being in close quarters with thousands of musicians and others over four days and compromised immune systems from all our drinking and debauchery. This year’s hit hard around Wednesday, and has lingered into the weekend. But fortunately Sam Sam is here, and being both a great companion and a great nurse.

When I lie down to rest, she is usually by my side. Of course, being a cat, she takes frequent naps herself.

There is something so peaceful and calming about her curled up and resting. And it seems to fit well visually and spiritually with the stormy weather that has settled in this weekend. Since December, we have been hit with a series of really nasty winter storms with high winds and flooding. It is not pleasant, and sometimes even stressful, but I know I shouldn’t complain as much of the country is in a deep freeze.

I like this portrait of Sam Sam sitting down in “loaf” pose on the ledge. And if you want to see a bit of action, here she is in our most recent Instagram.

View this post on Instagram

Morning routine #catsofinstagram

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

We hope you all have a warm, dry, and safe weekend. More post-NAMM coverage on the way soon.

Farewell to 2018

Click to enlarge

The end-of-year colage has become a long-standing tradition here at CatSynth, and one that I particularly enjoy. It was a complex year, and the images reflect that. Our cats Sam Sam and “Big Merp” (who has pretty much become an indoor-outdoor cat at his new home in Oakland), some great shows including outstanding performances with CDP and Vacuum Tree Head, a wonderful and restorative visit back to New York. It was also dark and fiery at times, as when the Camp Fire leveled the town of Paradise and bathed our sky in smoke and ash – beautiful and tragic all at once.

Another New Year tradition at CatSynth is to share some stats from the past year. First, the basics:

  • 309 posts
  • 169 Cat-and-music posts
  • 78 episodes of CatSynth TV

Our top posts for the year, using the somewhat shaky measurements of Google Analytics:

  1. Wordless Wednesday: Windmill (Golden Gate Park)
  2. Aretha Franklin: Rock Steady
  3. Secret Chiefs 3 and Cleric play Zorn’s Masada
  4. Women’s March 2018 in San Francisco
  5. CatSynth Pic: White Cat and Modular, Vertical View

It was heartening to see such a diverse set of posts top the list. However, this belies the fact that blog readership is way down, and eclipsed by Facebook and YouTube / CatSynth TV. Most of our referrals to the blog come from these two sources; but most activity stays on Facebook and YouTube. On the plus side, CatSynth TV viewership has grown significantly. Here are the top videos for the year.

  1. NAMM 2018: Mellotron! [Episode 34]
  2. Arturia MiniBrute 2 Part 1
  3. Arturia MiniBrute 2 Sequencer [Episode 61]
  4. NAMM 2018: Rossum Electro Music Assimil8or [Episode 31]
  5. Volca FM: Deconstructed Electric Piano [Episode 53]

Clearly, the NAMM reviews and synth demos dominate the channel, though I am proud of the diversity of art, music, and culture topics shared there as well. Overall, we at CatSynth do see the writing on the wall, and the efforts in 2019 will probably accelerate the shift from blog to video in terms of time, energy and investment.

On a more personal and introspective note, 2018 was a year we accomplished a lot. At the same time, it ends feeling like I both did too much and didn’t do enough. There are still so many things going on, even as we tried to consolidate and focus. One of the challenges going into 2019 will be looking at how to stay organized and even more focused, without giving up on all that we do. Also, like birthdays, a new year is a reminder that time is passing, and we are getting a bit older. Taking care of myself will also be a priority.

Thank you all as always for sharing this past year with us, and wish wish everyone a Happy New Year!

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.

Remembering Luna, Two Years Later

Even with so much happening in our own lives and in the world at large, we pause it all on this night to remember our beloved Luna, who passed away two years ago on October 31.

There is a both a poetic beauty and a cruel irony in the fact that she left us on Hallowe’en.  It was the day every year that she was the star of cat-blogging world, hosting the annual Hallowe’en edition of Weekend Cat Blogging and being the most beautiful of beautiful black cats.

As we begin the yahrzeit, we light our memorial candle, and pay special respects to her memorial.

There was a moment of explosive grief as I told her, wherever and however she is, that I miss her so much.  After that, a calmer sadness settled in as I sip a glass of bourbon, play “Dollar Days” from David Bowie’s Blackstar, and assemble this post.

Luna closeup portrait

She was a work of art, and fit in perfectly with aesthetics and design of CatSynth HQ.

But she was also extremely sweet and loving.

Please join me in remembering our sweet little girl, who left us way too soon.  She will always be missed, never forgotten.

Weekend Cat Blogging with Sam Sam, and Remembering Luna on #BlackCatDay

Sam Sam continues to delight every day with her adorable antics.

And she certainly gets lots of love and attention in response.

It’s interesting to see how different her unique facial markings look from different angles.

Of course, being the constant center of attention can be quite exhausting, so there is always time for naps.

Sam Sam often sticks a paw on her tail while sleeping, a trait we have remarked on before.  I don’t know whether it serves a purpose or is just a quirky habit, but it is very sweet.


Today is #BlackCatDay, and an opportunity to celebrate and recognize black cats as we close in on Halloween when stereotypes and threats sometimes reach a crescendo.  It breaks our hearts to think of any cat being hurt or abused, but black cats can face an especially different time.

For years, the celebration of black cats on and around Halloween was a ritual, with Luna often hosting the special Halloween Black-Cat Edition of Weekend Cat Blogging (back when that was a shared thing).  Now it is more a time to remember and reflect on Luna, who left us on October 31 two years ago.  We will have a proper remembrance on that day, but for now, we just want to bask in the beauty of our beloved black kitty.

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…

David Pate & Steve Cohn / Manul Override / Ornettology at the Make-Out Room

As we busily prepare for the next Vacuum Tree Head show this coming Tuesday, I find myself looking back at my last show with a very different band, Manul Override earlier this month at the Make-Out Room in San Francisco.  It was the subject of a recent CatSynth TV episode.

The evening began with an improvised set featuring saxophonist David Pate with keyboardist Steve Cohn.

Then it was time for Manul Override’s debut show.  This was a new group I put together with my friend and collaborator Serena Toxicat on voice and former Surplus-1980 bandmate Melne on guitar.

We had a lot of fun on stage, and the energy spread to the audience, with dancing and meowing all around (all of our tunes had at least some connection to cats).  I was particularly happy with the opening incantation, which featured a French rendition of Serena’s ode to the goddess Bast, and our 1980s-pop-style tune “Goodnigobbles”, which also featured Serena seductively delivering lyrics and spoken words in French.  Melne had a chance to show her versatility throughout the set, including our extended funky jam in the middle of the set.  As with all new musical projects, this is a work in progress, figuring out what works for us and what doesn’t, and how to make each show better than the previous one.  But it was also fun visually, with our fashion statements, cat ears, and Melne’s lighting.

The final set featured Ornettology, a project led by guitarist and composer Myles Boisen.  As the name suggests, the group is inspired by the music of Ornette Coleman, and reimagines many of his compositions.   He was joined by a stellar cast of local musicians including Steve Adams and Phillip Greenlief on saxophones, John Haines on drums, Safa Shokrai on bass, and John Finkbeiner.

The band delivered a truly dynamic performance that featured some of Ornette Coleman’s more familiar tunes, including “Ramblin'” and “Mob Job” There were some great solos from each of the members of the group as well.  You can hear some of Philip Greenlief and Myles Boisen soloing in our video.

The last few shows I have played at the Make-Out room always have a great audience – full houses that seem to appreciate having live music, whether they came to hear the specific artists or just happened to drop by.  A few in the latter category seemed to quite enjoy our Manul-Override set, signing Serena’s leg cast (she had an unfortunate accident a couple of weeks before the show) and taking selfies with us.  It was a fun night of music all aroundl.

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 🙂