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Meet Mechanics’ Institute Events Director Laura Sheppard

This year, Laura Sheppard celebrates her twentieth anniversary as events director at MI. Recently, Laura—who’s also the founder of multiple theater companies and an actress specializing in one-woman shows—shared highlights from her prolific event-producing career, as well as her deep appreciation of what she’s learned on the job.

Twenty years is a long time! What’s kept you at MI?

This has been a profound education, every single day. To produce a literary event, you need a depth and breadth of knowledge of the author’s work. The first celebration the Events Department did was for William Saroyan’s 100th birthday in 2008. Maybe I read Saroyan in high school. But delving into his stories again was such a pleasure.

For the 2013 Allen Ginsberg celebration that we produced with City Lights and the Jewish Contemporary Museum, I was reading Ginsberg’s poetry, diving in, dwelling in his work. I was reintroduced to Charles Dickens when I produced a huge Dickens 200th birthday anniversary event in 2012, with scholars from UC Santa Cruz’s Dickens Project, performers from the Dickens Fair, and author Jane Smiley as the keynote speaker.

Did you start at MI as Events director?

The Events Department was created when I came on staff as Events Director. Previously, I had worked as an events producer in New York and festival producer at the JCC East Bay. At MI, I came in and instigated a whole program which had consistency. We had weekly author events. A few months later, we added the regular CinemaLit series, inspired by a board member, to promote our film collection. And then our literary celebrations that became another signature of the department.

What author events stand out in your mind?

I don’t want to play favorites. But I loved presenting Joyce Carol Oates and Joan Didion. Eric Vuillard, the Prix Goncourt winner, with his book about Vichy France. Carey Perloff, with her memoir about starting ACT, and John Lahr with his theater autobiography—both delightful speakers. Dana Gioia, our California poet laureate, who knew all his poems by heart. And our recent tribute to Toni Morrison was particularly inspiring.

Another thing that has been very exciting is all of MI’s collaborations. With our [MI building] tenants, Litquake and Zyzzyva. With our local publishing houses, like City Lights, Heyday Books, and University of California Press, on so many incredible books over the years. With our independent bookstores. With our authors, having these intimate conversations with writers of all backgrounds. It’s been this wonderful exchange, expanding our members’ and audiences’ experience with the literary world, and also vice versa—having authors in the Bay Area become part of our MI community.

Let’s talk a little bit about your life in theater.

I’ve always had a passion for theater, from childhood. I have a BFA in acting from Boston University. For many years, I had a theater company in Boston, Gestural Theater, which involved movement and mime and baroque music. I taught movement for actors. And then I moved to New York, where I was very involved with the Actors Institute.

Back in 2011, I saw the one-woman show where you performed, complete with turn-of-the-century attire, as writer Harriet Levy.

My solo performances have always been involved with some kind of writing. I’m a longtime Gertrude Stein fan, and obsessed with Paris and the writers and artists of that era. Stein’s writing has a musicality; it’s also very abstract and Dadaesque and imagistic. I created “Still Life with Stein,” a Dadaesque theater piece, based on her 1914 work “Tender Buttons.”

Later, Heyday Books publisher Malcolm Margolin sent me 920 O’Farrell Street: A Jewish Girlhood in Old San Francisco, and suggested I do a theater piece on the author, Harriet Lane Levy. Then I found Harriet’s memoir about her life in Paris, which she visited with her friend and neighbor, Alice B. Toklas. And so I developed “Paris Portraits” based on her experiences there between 1908 and 1910. My favorite time period in Paris!

So what are you working on now?

There’s a wonderful book about Jewish women who had literary salons—that’s sparked a lot of ideas for the future.

Also, I’ve started a new theater, the Yiddish Theater Ensemble, in partnership with director Bruce Bierman. We were supposed to be producing God of Vengeance by the famous writer Sholem Asch for September performances. But because we cannot gather due to Covid-19, we’re going to move into some sort of film or video production.

And when you’re not producing events or doing something theatrical?

Recently, I’ve been exploring my neighborhood in Berkeley, with all of its pathways and magical gardens. I was never a walker before. But now that we’re deprived in other ways, the natural world has become this incredible Eden. It’s this rich animation of color and aromas, a blessing in greenery and live oak and redwood.

You tango, I understand.

I’ve always danced—modern, creative, jazz, mime, all kinds of dance. But I started taking tango many years ago with my dear friend and former MI librarian Maria Pinedo. We were thinking about flamenco but then we saw the show Forever Tango. It’s been a lifeline. After engaging and reading and being online all day at work, it’s this wonderful flow of music and sensuality. You don’t need to talk.

Anything else you want people reading this interview to know?

I’ve learned so much from our MI executive directors and our staff and the literary world that surrounds us. I’m forever grateful for the opportunity to learn and to grow.

Posted on Jul. 8, 2020 by Autumn Stephens

Reads That Remain in the Brain (Part II)

Last week, we posted a list of books that have lingered (sometimes for  decades) in the minds of Mechanics’ Institute staff. Read on for their takes on more indelible titles:

Lisa Braider (Library Assistant)

In elementary school I was introduced to Little Women [Louisa May Alcott, 1868]. I was immediately smitten. Like the March sisters in the story, I was one of four daughters growing up in Concord, Mass. From Little Women I took not only the importance of sisters and family but also the idea that a young woman could make her own life.

I stumbled across Joseph Heller's Catch-22 [1961] in high school. I still remember how surprised I was that a book on such a dark topic (World War II) could be laugh-out-loud funny. Reading it when I did informed my views on the futility and absurdity of war. To this day it is one of the most potent examples of laughing to keep from crying that I have ever read.

I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance [Robert Pirsig, 1974] during the long, hot summer between my sophomore and junior year in college. Despite having little interest in Zen and no interest in motorcycles, I was enthralled. One of my most vivid memories of that summer is my attempt to describe the book’s thesis to the elderly women I worked with at what was then called the Concord Antiquarian Society.

Craig Jackson (Collections/Acquisitions Librarian)

I consult the following titles constantly . . . just can’t get them out of my mind.

A History of the English Language [Albert Baugh, 1978] first came to my attention in the 1970s while I was in high school and working as a page at Toronto Public Library. The book ties together the historical development of English by examining political and social considerations and the influence of other languages. It piqued my interest to such an extent that I acquired more specialized titles such as Old English and Its Closest Relatives and The Syntax of Old Norse.

The Story of Latin and the Romance Languages [Mario Pei, 1976] spotlights the evolution of Latin into Spanish, Italian, and French, etc. Most interesting is why and how each language developed so distinctly from the others, yet remains similar in many ways to its “sister” languages. This book inspired an ongoing study of the subject and additional titles like The Evolution of French Syntax: A Comparative Approach and From Latin to Modern French with Especial Consideration of Anglo-Norman.

Steven Dunlap (Head of Technical Services)

James Michener was one of my favorite authors when I was a teenager. His novel Caravans [1963] is the story of a young woman who disappears and the man her parents hire to find her in post-World War II Afghanistan. But it involves much more than that. My adolescent thinking tended to black-and-white without much room for gray. This book changed that, compelling me to confront the fact that the capacity for both good and ill exists in everyone, including me. Other books or experiences may have taught that lesson to others—this is the one that taught it to me.


In my early 20s, I read Brian Fawcett’s Cambodia: A Book for People Who Find Television Too Slow [1986]. It changed the way I think about civilizations and progress, social and political movements, public and economic policy, leaders and tyrants, and government and governance. Fawcett takes a unique approach: a nonfiction essay runs the length of the book along the lower half of the pages while a series of short stories run across the top half of the pages. The stories and essay are brilliant on their own, but the device of making you read them concurrently has a profound effect as each reinforces the other. 



Posted on Jun. 24, 2020 by Autumn Stephens

It’s Audiobook Month (And We’re All Ears)

Back in 1998, when the nonprofit Audio Publishers Association declared June as Audiobook month, many readers still considered recorded books slightly déclassé.

But the popularity of reading that requires no eyeball action has skyrocketed in recent years, thanks to the rise of streaming and digital technologies, star-studded casts of narrators, and a population increasingly accustomed to sporting a set of earbuds or headphones.

Ready to jump on the bandwagon? The Mechanics’ Institute Library offers a robust and ever-growing selection of audiobooks and eAudiobooks (audiobooks that you stream online or download onto a mobile device) through its RBdigital platform.

Like the Library’s print and eBook collections, these hands-free titles run the gamut of genres. You’ll find bestselling novels like Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments and Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. Noteworthy nonfiction like Michelle Obama’s Becoming and Ross Gay’s Book of Delights. Timeless classics like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. New self-help like Martin Giballa’s One-Minute Workout and Kaia Roman’s The Joy Plan. And much, much more.

As die-hard print fans will attest, page-flipping is one of life’s supreme pleasures. But there are multiple benefits to books geared for the ears. Audiobooks can, for example, help you:

Get through more books. It’s almost impossible—not to mention unwise—to read while driving, cooking, exercising, showering, or even strolling down the street. But audiobooks—and especially eAudios—allow you to multitask, checking off items on your to-do list and books on your bucket list at the same time.

Survive the drive. Music, it’s said, soothes the savage breast (thanks, William Congreve). But to soothe the squabbling siblings in the back seat, or to sidestep tedium or road rage, there’s nothing like a well-narrated novel. Restore family harmony with perennial favorites like Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island or Arthur Conan Doyle’s Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, or find your happy place with an adult read like Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens or Airport by Arthur Hailey.

(One caveat: Don’t get too caught up in the story. An audiobook-loving friend of the MI was once pulled over for driving 79 miles per hour in a 30-mph zone—a mishap entirely due, she claimed, to a tale narrated in Garrison Keillor’s “rich and rollicking baritone.”)

Give your eyes a break. When Thomas Edison patented the phonograph in 1878, he suggested the device could be used to create “phonographic books” for the visually impaired. But the wax-cylinder technology of the time made it impossible to record anything longer than four minutes (fine for a popular song, not so great for Moby Dick). Today, though, those of us with subpar eyesight—or just garden-variety eyestrain—can listen our way through entire libraries.

Expand your sensory horizons. Aptly, audiobooks have been called “movies for the ears.” Listening to an audiobook is not so much a substitute for reading as a different phenomenon entirely. And while not all accomplished narrators are well-known actors, many have turned their talents to this very 21st-century art, including Claire Danes, Reese Witherspoon, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tim Curry, Dennis Quaid, Diane Keaton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Scarlett Johansson, among others.

And finally, in the midst of all the responsibilities that adult life entails, don’t overlook the pure, passive charm of being read to. Audiobooks, as children’s author Paul Acampora has astutely noted, speak for themselves.


To get started with eAudiobooks on your web browser, click here, click the sign-in button, and choose “register” to create your account with RBdigital. Be sure to input your Mechanics’ Institute Library card number (14 digits, no spaces).

To listen from a mobile device, download the RBdigital app. Create an account using your credentials from the Mechanics’ Institute.


Need help with RBdigital? Or want to suggest eAudiobooks you’d like to see in our collection? Email our librarians at [email protected]

Posted on Jun. 23, 2020 by Autumn Stephens

Pop Talk

Sixty percent of American men are fathers, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But the data doesn’t tell us how dads feel about the role—or, for that matter, how their progeny rate their performance. In honor of Father’s Day 2020, we rounded up an assortment of comments from writer-fathers and writer-offspring on what it actually means to be a dad.

“To be a successful father . . . there's one absolute rule: when you have a kid, don't look at it for the first two years.”

—Ernest (“Papa”) Hemingway

“The handy thing about being a father is that the historic standard is so pitifully low.”

―Michael Chabon

 “Family happiness completely absorbs me, and it’s impossible to do anything.”

—Leo Tolstoy

“ . . . What a child needs is at least one parent, and more often two, who focus on him or her above all. The gender of those parents is negotiable. When [my husband and I] once asked George whether he would prefer to have a mother and father, like most of the kids in his class, he said, ‘No! If my parents were a mother and a father, I wouldn’t have one of you—and that would make me so sad.’”

—Andrew Solomon

“My son is seven years old. I am 54. It has taken me a great many years to reach that age. I am more respected in the community, I am stronger, I am more intelligent, and I think I am better than he is. I don’t want to be his pal, I want to be a father.”

—Clifton Fadiman

“We think our fathers fools, so wise we grow. Our wiser sons no doubt will think us so.”

—Alexander Pope

“Whether biological, foster, or adoptive, [fathers] teach us through the encouragement they give, the questions they answer, the limits they set, and the strength they show in the face of difficulty and hardship.”

—Barack Obama

“There is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.”

—Cyril Connolly

“ . . . My father, the writer Jan Morris, is transgender. I am immensely proud of my father as a woman, and I don’t think of her in any other way.”

—Mark Morris

“It doesn't matter who my father was; it matters who I remember he was.”

—Anne Sexton

“I think a child should be allowed to take his father's or mother's name at will on coming of age. Paternity is a legal fiction.”

—James Joyce 

“Most American children suffer too much mother and too little father.”

—Gloria Steinem

“It no longer bothers me that I may be constantly searching for father figures; by this time, I have found several and dearly enjoyed knowing them all.”

—Alice Walker

“Advice my father gave me: never take liquor into the bedroom. Don’t stick anything in your ears. Be anything but an architect.”

—Kurt Vonnegut

“You know how it is with fathers, you never escape the idea that maybe after all they’re right.”

—John Updike

“Sometimes, when things were going well, I think my father actually enjoyed having a family.”

—Alison Bechdel

“It is exceedingly interesting and attractive to be a successful business man, or railway man, or farmer, or a successful lawyer or doctor; or a writer, or a President, or a ranchman, or the colonel of a fighting regiment, or to kill grizzly bears and lions. But for unflagging interest and enjoyment, a household of children, if things go reasonably well, certainly makes all other forms of success and achievement lose their importance by comparison.”

—Theodore Roosevelt

“Whoever does not have a good father should procure one.”

—Friedrich Nietzsche


Image: Kellogg and Bulkeley, 1860. oil on fabric; canvas mounted on fiberboard. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. William Bulkeley.

Posted on Jun. 19, 2020 by Autumn Stephens

Reads That Remain in the Brain (Part I)

What book(s) can’t you get out of your mind? That’s the question we asked library staff this month. Their responses, ranging from 19th-century classics to a 2019 burial guide,

may inspire you to revisit your own top titles or make the acquaintance of theirs.

Rhonda Hall (Library Assistant):

Passing by Nella Larsen (1929); available as an eAudiobook

This novel about two women living in Harlem in the 1920s is based on the real lives of many mixed-race women in the post-slavery era. It could almost be the story of my grandmother, who could pass as white and move between worlds during segregation. Another memorable book is No Name in the Street by James Baldwin (1972). Baldwin's experiences in the 1950s and ’60s resemble those of my parents as a young couple navigating life during the civil rights movement.

Steven Dunlap (Head of Technical Services):

Moby Dick by Herman Melville (1851); available as an eAudiobook

I started to read this as I was about to turn 40. It took me over a year and a half to finish, because I found some chapters and passages so breathtakingly beautiful that I had to read them several times. When I stumbled into the ER one day, this was the book I had on my person and therefore what I read in the hospital while recovering from surgery. When I told a colleague about my difficulty making my way through the novel while on a morphine drip, he pointed out that Moby Dick is a morphine drip in its way. I can think of no more apt description of the novel and my experience reading it.

Deb Hunt (Library Director):

Everything in its Place: First Loves and Last Tales by Oliver Sacks (2019)

This final volume of essays by the well-known neurologist covers everything from Alzheimer’s disease to a fern-seeking expedition in New York City to touring North America with someone with Tourette’s.

My favorite essays here focus on nature and mental illness. In one, Sacks describes how mental health institutions used to offer valuable work for the mentally ill—farming, milking cows, etc.—so their lives had a purpose and they were not just locked away. And I really like the essay “Why We Need Gardens.” Over the years, my own gardens have kept me sane and provided a safe haven when life felt very stressful.

Reimagining Death: Stories and Practical Wisdom for Home Funerals and Green Burials by Lucinda Herring (2019)

I had been considering cremation, but it is toxic to the environment, so I am looking at alternatives such as a green burial. This is a great follow up to the classic American Way of Death by Jessica Mitford.

Celeste Steward (Library Supervisor):

Blue Highways: A Journey into America by William Least Heat-Moon (1982)

This is the autobiographical account of an unemployed English professor, newly separated from his wife, who travels only on back roads as he embarks on a circular journey around the U.S.

The author coined the term “blue highways” based on old Rand McNally atlases indicating in blue the small, forgotten, and rural roads. What appeals to me most about these roads less traveled is the cast of characters he meets on his journey, including a teenage runaway, a Hopi medical student, an evangelist hitchhiker, a monk, a maple syrup farmer, a boat builder, a Nevada prostitute, and owners of Western saloons and remote country stores.

Heat-Moon’s contemplative and mindful journey helped shape my own philosophy when traveling. In general, I try to explore the routes less traveled for the most inspirational and educational experiences.

Posted on Jun. 17, 2020 by Autumn Stephens

Of Hormones, Hamilton, and Being Too Sexy for the Library: Mechanics’ Institute Author-Member Gertrude Atherton

Since opening its doors in 1855, the Mechanics’ Institute has attracted—and continues to attract—scores of local writers. In fact, 179 works by members are part of the Library’s collection.

One of the most vivid in the lineage of card-carrying MI authors is San Francisco native Gertrude Atherton (1857-1948), a prolific novelist and chronicler of California social history. A globetrotting feminist, Atherton idealized Amazons, published a visionary book of essays titled Can Women Be Gentlemen? (answer: yes, only better), and opined that Eleanor Roosevelt, not her spouse, should have been elected president.

As a young woman, Atherton had to pen her first novel in secret because her husband (who had been her own mother’s fiancé—but that’s another story) didn’t approve of women writers. In return, Atherton didn’t much approve of her husband, who “was interested in nothing but horses.” And she found life on his family’s placid estate in what is now Atherton, CA, soul-crushingly dull.

But Atherton’s career prospects perked up when, at age 30, she was widowed (her husband having passed away at sea and his remains sent home. (Legend has it that his remains were preserved in a keg of rum).

During the next fifty years, Atherton traveled the world, hobnobbing with literary and political luminaries ranging from U.S. Senator James Phelan to Ambrose Bierce to Oscar Wilde’s mother. She reported on World War I for The New York Times, headed the San Francisco chapter of PEN, and undistracted by domestic duties, published a new book nearly every year.

Atherton’s literary reputation in the U.S. was cemented by her 1902 biographical novel, The Conqueror, a rigorously researched treatment of Alexander Hamilton’s life. On the other hand, her works featuring independent, unmarried women protagonists (in other words, characters much like Atherton herself) met with raised eyebrows.

A reviewer for The New York Times warned sensitive readers away from 1897’s Patience Sparhawk and Her Times due to the heroine’s “fleshy” adventures. Meanwhile, the MI librarian at the time—much to member-author Atherton’s annoyance—banned the book from its shelves (a decision that, you may be glad to know, has long since been rescinded.) 

Then there was 1923’s controversial Black Oxen, centering on a 58-year-old woman transformed, thanks to hormone therapy, into a hot 30-year-old. In an enviable trifecta of PR opportunities, Black Oxen was simultaneously a banned book, a raging bestseller, and a blockbuster silent film starring famed beauty Corrine Griffith and “It” girl Clara Bow.

Far-fetched as the premise of Black Oxen may sound, it wasn’t entirely fictional. Atherton, 66 at the time of the novel’s publication, had personally undergone a then-trendy X-ray treatment for “rejuvenation.” And who knows, it just may have worked. Publishing her final book at 89, Atherton lived to be 91, and by some accounts she appeared twenty years younger than her age.

Or maybe it was satisfaction with her solitary state that sustained her. In her long and extraordinarily productive life, Atherton concluded in her autobiography, “The worst trial I had . . .  to endure was having a husband continually on my hands.”


For the Library’s collection of books by Gertrude Atherton, click here.

For a list of member-authors’ works in the Library’s collection, click here.

Photo published in The Bell in the Fog And Other Stories, Harper & Brothers, 1905

Posted on Jun. 11, 2020 by Autumn Stephens

On Board with Judit Sztaray of Mechanics’ Chess Club

This month, Judit Sztaray celebrates her one-year anniversary as general manager of youth outreach and events for the world-renowned Mechanic’s Institute Chess Room. A former science researcher with a Ph.D. in chemistry and the 2017 recipient of the U.S. Chess Federation Organizer of the Year award, Judit grew up playing chess in her native Hungary, where she also honed her skills in Eastern European baking.

We Zoom-conferenced with Judit in the Stockton home she shares with her chemistry-professor husband and three school-aged daughters. Judit had just wrapped up a successful first day of the MI virtual chess camp, a project that she organized.

When did you start playing chess?

In Hungary, everyone knows how to play chess. It’s in the air. I learned when I was young. But I was never a competitive player. I am regularly playing. I know how to checkmate. But I play just for fun.

Is it common in Hungary for women to be involved in chess, or is it still weighted toward men?

Hungary is not particularly ahead in terms of female chess players. Probably the percentages are about the same in every country. But we have the advantage of the Polgar sisters—they are very famous. Three girls, like my family. They grew up during Communism, just like I did. Susan, the oldest, is the first female grandmaster in the world. She and I talk quite often; I volunteer for her chess nonprofit. But all three Polgar sisters became grandmasters, the highest level of chess title you can get.


They were homeschooled, which was really, really rare in those days. Their father proved that with enough dedication and hard work and repeating practice, you can be a genius in anything. What we call genius—you don’t have to be born with it. You just have to work really hard.

Before chess, you were in chemistry, is that right?

I have a Ph.D in mass spectrometry, detecting molecules in various matters. I worked in clinical chemistry, where you detect molecules in your system that indicate cancer or other diseases. It took me a good six, seven years to earn my Ph.D. because I was following my husband around the world to wherever he successfully got a job. Hungary, North Carolina, Hungary again, Stockton.

I worked in research for 15 years, was a stay-at-home mom before I got my U.S. work permit, and then I was a data scientist for two years at the University of the Pacific in Stockton.

And then how did you transition to a career in chess?

While I was at the University of the Pacific, I started volunteering at Bay Area Chess and the past executive director asked me several times if I wanted to join. The last time he asked, I said okay, yes, I’m ready. And then for five years I was the executive director of that organization.

In your mind, is there a connection between chemistry and chess?

I would say a connection with chemistry, not too much. But math and chess, definitely. The probabilities, the logic, the calculations. You’re evaluating scenarios, evaluating outcomes. There’s a probability of accuracy, which has become important nowadays with online chess, fighting against cheaters, how you can prove mathematically that it’s impossible to have beaten someone.

So how’s it going in the MI Chess Room?

It gives me a lot of pride to work for this organization. I don’t think people realize how unique Mechanics’ is. It’s the oldest [continuously operating chess club in the U.S.], and we are open every day. You can come and play chess anytime. And the fact that it is built into the charter of the Institute gives a lot of confidence that this will live on. In fifty years, the chess club will still be here. So people should cherish the background and history.

What’s great about your job?

I like kids, I like classes. But event management is my favorite part. I’m a customer-service oriented person. And it’s a rewarding feeling, putting something together that works. For example, this past weekend, we had our first online tournament that was open for anyone, and we awarded prize money. We had eight grandmasters playing! That’s huge. And we just got back the result that no one was cheating. Oh my God, we pulled it off. This is a very good achievement, I would say.

I also love working with passionate people like Abel Talamantez, the Chess Room director, or local legends like FIDE Master Paul Whitehead. [FIDE is a French acronym for the international chess federation.]

So having all the Chess Room activities online, because of the pandemic, is working out well?

Yes. We are leading in online right now, big time. We started it really fast [after the shelter-in-place order] and a lot of our regular club players transitioned to online. We have tournaments every single day now online. We have 30 to 40 players each Tuesday and Friday night. It’s great to virtually connect with them regularly.

When you’re not working, what do you like to do?

I love to sing. We ride bikes a lot. We’re all excited about any chess-related stuff. And we like to bake. I teach my girls how to do those sweets that I learned from my parents and grandparents. People are so afraid of poppy seeds. But we grind them, we smoosh them, and make delicious sweets using them. We don’t make it too sweet, we don’t make a lot of sugary icing.

What about reading?

I don’t have too much time to read. But my favorite author is Jane Austen. And I always enjoy bringing my girls to the library and feeding their souls with love for books. I want to make them feel at home there.

What haven’t I asked about that you’d like people to know?

I'm a very open and direct person, and I value communication more than anything. I always say, let’s talk. Don’t rely on email, don’t rely on Facebook. Have an interaction. That’s how your enthusiasm can shine through, and others can feel it. Enthusiasm is one of the most important things in life. That’s my motto.


For a listing of MI’s camps, classes, clubs, and tournaments for kids, click here.

For the MI chess calendar, click here.

Posted on Jun. 5, 2020 by Autumn Stephens

Meet Virginia Matthews, the Library’s Most Limber Fan

CinemaLit regular Virginia (“Ginny”) Matthews began her modern dance career at Sarah Lawrence College and trained at the Merce Cunningham Studio in New York. A founding member of the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company in the 1970s, the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts award in choreography, and the director of Downtown Dance/Art Space in her hometown of Sebastopol, she currently teaches dance and Pilates mat classes and performs with SoCo Dance Theater. This week, we asked Matthews to share her thoughts on dance, aging, and what, to her, makes a really good read.

Last year,  you presented a retrospective of your solo works from 1975 to the present that you called “Approaching 70—50 Years of a Life in Dance.” What was it like to put yourself out there as “approaching 70”?

I tend to be overambitious. But even I realized I could not do a 60-minute solo show at my age. But I have some wonderful archival film from my fiftieth birthday concert. So I did some live solos and presented some as film, adding narrative to reveal the context that my choreography was coming from. And I got so much incredible feedback from both younger and older people. That was a real validation that people are interested in seeing what the possibilities of aging can be. Even if they’re not going to dance until they’re 70, there’s still that possibility. And that someone who has lived almost 70 years still has something to share in this art form of dance.

What’s different for you about dancing now than when you were younger? 

I’ve found—not just in dance—that there is compensation. There may be less physical energy but there is a lot more wisdom on how to use that energy efficiently. There’s a sense at this point that this is what I love to do, and I want to do it as long as I can and as long as people are responding.

I understand that you believe strongly in not isolating one generation from another. Can you say more?

Right now in Modern Dance for the Returning Dancer [online at ODC in San Francisco], mostly I’m teaching elders. But my whole career I have taught all ages, from 3 to 70. I would often teach the same basic movements to all of them, and twice a year all the classes would perform together. I even had a multigenerational dance company here in Sebastopol. I would love to keep breaking those generational divides. I hate it that we’re ghettoizing.

What advice do you have for people who want to stay active as they age? Or for people who want to start being active as they age? Is there hope?

Yes, definitely. There are so many wonderful mind-body exercise systems. A very good example is yoga. People in their 60s who start a Pilates exercise system, I have seen them really increase strength and stability. I also teach Chair Pilates for those who can’t get on the floor. I haven’t seen a lot of improvement there, but I haven’t seen deterioration. In your 80s, that’s a good thing!

You’re ordained in the Rinzai Zen Buddhist lineage. Can you explain what that means?

It’s a commitment to the bodhisattva vow to be of service, a greater step into service. The training usually takes six years but because I had three children and a husband and a career, it took me 20 years to fully train!

And how does your Zen practice affect your practice of dance? Of aging?  

I have never been seriously injured in the 50 years of my dance career. I credit that not only to training and physicality, but to meditation.

As for age, so much of what youth and middle age is about is creating and reinforcing ego structure. As we age, we deconstruct that. Spiritual practice is a great path to aging and to the things that peripherally haunt you in your 20s and 30s, like sickness and death, but are front and center in your 70s and 80s.

You have been involved with MI for a long time, is that right?

I’ve been attending CinemaLit since my friend Matt Kennedy started as host, in January this year. But when I lived in San Francisco from the early ’70s to the mid-’80s, my husband (who plays chess) and I both belonged. After my first son was born, my favorite thing was to get on the bus and go to the library with him. There was the wonderful ladies room, where I could nurse him in comfort and privacy. To me, that alone was worth the price of the membership.

What do you like to read?

My husband and I are revisiting writers like Dickens and Trollope and Wilkie Collins. But my immersion in feminism in the ’70s made me realize that during my whole education, I had been reading books by men. So for ten years, I only read books by women. Gertrude Stein was a complete revelation. Her jazz rhythm—I made a solo dance to that, to her speaking.

Also, I’m passionate about 19th-century literature, and MI would have an out-of-print 1890 book that you wouldn’t find anywhere else. I remember that MI turned me on to a late 19th-century female writer, Flora MacDonald [Mayor]. There’s actually a BBC series of her work. I read—and this is still part of my reading—Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, Jane Austen, the Brönte sisters, Virginia Woolf.

Anything else you would like people reading this interview to know?

I will often say to people that one needs some sort of stress reduction practice. Modern culture is so stressful, the pace of it, the fact that there’s so much emphasis on fear and anxiety. The media love to turn the fear button up. For physical and psychological health, one needs a practice to counteract that. Yoga, being out in nature, meditation practice—anything that can counterbalance what is a very stressful time. Reading can be it, too.

Posted on May. 29, 2020 by Autumn Stephens

Happy Birthday, Rachel Carson

In 2020, we tend to remember marine biologist Rachel Carson, born this day in 1907, for her highly influential 1962 bestseller, Silent Spring. A painstakingly researched exposé of the chemical industry, the “poison book,” as Carson called it, focused public attention on the ecological consequences of pesticide misuse for the very first time.

Though the book proved controversial and resulted in savage personal attacks on Carson (for everything from her supposed lack of scientific authority to her “mystical attachment to the balance of nature” to her dubious social status as a “spinster”), it was also supremely effective. Not coincidentally, the years immediately following its publication would see a national ban on the pesticide DDT or dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, and a burgeoning global ecology movement.

But long before Silent Spring, Carson—a dazzling wordsmith employed for much of her short life by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—was one of the nation’s best-known nature writers, thanks to her groundbreaking sea trilogy.

A lifelong lover of the ocean (as a child growing up in Pennsylvania, the waters of the world captured her imagination long before she ever glimpsed the Atlantic), Carson published her first book, a study of marine life titled Under the Sea-Wind, more than twenty years before Silent Spring. In 1951, her poetic The Sea Around Us initially appeared as a three-part series in the New Yorker. Essentially a biography of the oceans, the book remained on the New York Times bestseller list for 86 weeks, won a National Book Award, and paved the way for the enthusiastic reception of 1955’s The Edge of the Sea, a study of the ecosystem of the Eastern seaboard.

Carson died of breast cancer in 1964, but her passion for the natural world and her battle for its survival live on in her books, and in the ongoing environmental movement that her words and her work sparked.

To commemorate Carson on her birthday, consider reading (or re-reading) one of her powerhouse classics (Silent Spring, The Sea Around Us, and The Edge of the Sea are all available as eBooks from MI). Or perhaps even more to the point, take yourself outside and enjoy the natural world—an exercise that may be more important now than ever before. As Carson wrote in Silent Spring, “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature—the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”

Posted on May. 27, 2020 by Autumn Stephens

Make the Most of Memorial Day

Since its inception just after the Civil War, Americans have observed Memorial Day in a variety of ways: with commemorations and cemetery visits, veterans’ parades and backyard barbecues, flags flown from front porches and red poppies sported in lapels—and, since the Monday Holiday Act of 1971, by staying home from work. But one way we have never marked this bittersweet day of remembrance is digitally—until now. To help you celebrate Memorial Day 2020, here are a few events and activities to access via computer or smartphone:

National Memorial Day Concert

On Sunday, May 24, PBS presents its 31st annual Memorial Day concert honoring members of the U.S. armed forces. Perennially one of the network’s most popular broadcasts, the show is co-hosted this year by Joe Mantegna and Gary Sinise, with appearances by top-name musicians and actors (Renée Fleming, Sam Elliott, Laurence Fishburne, et al.) and a tribute to those on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis. Sunday, May 24, 8 p.m. PST, KQED.Memorial for Us All

Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York livestreams weekly Sunday performances to commemorate lives lost to COVID-19. On Sunday, May 24, the program will feature Broadway singer/actress Kelli O’Hara; videos of past performances by artists such as Yo-Yo Ma and Wynton Marsalis can be viewed on the Lincoln Center website. Names of loved ones who have died in the pandemic can be submitted online and will be mentioned in the show on Sunday, May 24, 3 p.m. PDT. Access the event on the Lincoln Center Instagram page, YouTube channel, Facebook page, or website.  

Parade of Heroes

On Monday, May 25, the genealogy site Ancestry sponsors a free virtual commemoration of Memorial Day. Kathie Lee Gifford hosts this 45-minute event featuring musical performances, veteran interviews, and a tribute to the 75th anniversary of World War II. Monday, May 25, 8 a.m. PDT. Live stream on Facebook at Ancestry - Parade of Heroes or view later at  

(And speaking of Ancestry, MI’s subscription to the library edition of is available for use from home while you’re sheltering in place. To research your own family’s military (or other) history, start by accessing our Ancestry Library database:

Memorial Day Commemoration, Presidio of San Francisco

Throughout Memorial Day weekend, the Presidio Trust invites you to visit the website of the historic fort-turned-park. Although the traditional ceremonies in the Presidio’s National Cemetery won’t take place this year, the site offers relevant videos (including one featuring Willie Mays at the 2019 event), a photographic history of Memorial Day at the Presidio over the past 150 years, and instructions for crafting red poppies from construction paper.

The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3

Ulysses S. Grant, the renowned general who led the Union Army to victory in the Civil War and subsequently served as the 18th U.S. president, was also the author of a set of memoirs that has never been out of print since its publication in 1885. Click on the link(s) above to download this ever-popular autobiography in eAudiobook format. 

StoryCorps Military Voices

The StoryCorps ongoing oral history project includes an initiative dedicated to military veterans’ stories. Click here to watch a moving series of short video interviews with veterans and families or to find out how to record your own.

Finally, Memorial Day can be observed this year, as always, on Monday at 3 p.m. local time—with a completely tech-free moment of silence.



Posted on May. 22, 2020 by Autumn Stephens