By Tami Larson
Photos by Stefanie Schwartz
Mill Valley Living is privileged to have the opportunity to feature Mill Valley native, Tiffany Shlain, honored by Newsweek as one of the “Women Shaping the 21st Century”, and her family – husband, Ken Goldberg, and daughters, Odessa Simone Shlain Goldberg (19) and Blooma Shlain Goldberg (13).
While many locals are familiar with Tiffany’s incredible work over the past few decades, (see tiffanyshlain.com), we thought it would be nice to learn more about what’s helped “shape” her into the remarkable human being she is. Well, what we learned is that the title “Game Changer’’ is no joke!
The Shlain/Goldberg Family have lived in Mill Valley as a family for 17 years now. Ken is an artist and professor of engineering at UC Berkeley, pursuing research on robots for homes, hospitals, and warehouses. He is also Co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Ambi Robotics in Berkeley.
Tiffany is an artist, filmmaker, author, and founder of the Webby Awards. The couple has collaborated on several art installations and films. Odessa went to Tam High and is now a sophomore at Yale studying cognitive science. Blooma is an 8th grader at MVMS.
MVL: DO YOU MIND SHARING WHICH NEIGHBORHOOD YOU LIVE IN?
Ken: Not at all; we live in Sycamore Park, the triangle between Park School, MVMS, and Tam High.
Tiffany: We love Manhattan so we like to think of our neighborhood between 7-11 and the 2 AM Club as “Midtown Mill Valley.” (B;) While from Mill Valley, in college and after, I was ready to get out of the woods and explore the cities, from Manhattan to Hong Kong. Then Ken and I moved back here, to be near my father when he became ill and to give our kids that magical-nature-filled-great-public-schools soil I knew so well.
Ken: I was reluctant to move to the suburbs and vowed that I would never be one of those BBQ-obsessed soccer dads. Within a year I was grilling on the back deck and coaching Odessa’s soccer team. I learned to love Mill Valley’s “Hobbit” vibe and ride up Railroad Grade every chance I get.
MVL: OK, LET’S START AT THE BEGINNING. HOW DID YOU TWO MEET AND WHEN WERE YOU MARRIED?
Tiffany: On a dark and rainy night on January 24th, 1997, my father Leonard Shlain was giving a reading of his book Tiffany is an artist, filmmaker, author, and founder of the Webby Awards. The couple has collaborated on several art installations and films. Odessa went to Tam High and is now a sophomore at Yale studying cognitive science. Blooma is an 8th grader at MVMS.
MVL: WHAT’S YOUR BEST MEMORY TOGETHER AS A COUPLE?
Ken: It has to be the story Tiffany just shared.
MVL: NO DOUBT YOU HAVE SOME INTERESTING MILL VALLEY MT. TAM STORIES. ANY YOU’D LIKE TO SHARE?
Ken: About 10 years ago, I got clip-on bike shoes that got stuck and fell over the side of the walkway at the start of Railroad Grade. I fell 15 feet onto my back in the middle of the creek. Luckily my backpack and helmet saved me from serious injury but I realized kids could easily fall, so I lobbied the Marin County park rangers every month for 3 years until they put up wooden railings.
MVL: WOW, SO YOU ARE PERSONALLY RESPONSIBLE FOR THAT KEN? I THINK I SPEAK FOR ALL OF MILL VALLEY IN SAYING THANK YOU. THERE’S NO QUESTION YOUR DILIGENCE SAVED MANY FROM SERIOUS INJURY OR DEATH.
Ken: Anyone in my shoes would have done it…
MVL: SO TIFFANY, YOU GREW UP IN MILL VALLEY? WHAT FEELS THE SAME AND WHAT HAS CHANGED?
Tiffany: I grew up in Tam Valley near Tennessee Valley Road in the ’70s, and loved growing up here. With Crosby Stills and Nash, Joni Mitchell, and Earth, Wind and Fire as the soundtrack in my mind, I have many fond memories of making regular visits to Muir Woods with the family, going to the Marin City Flea Market every Sunday with my mom, the Old Brown Store, The Sweet Water, Village Music, the Sequoia Theater and The Unknown Museum. Many of those places are now gone (I’m so glad the Sweetwater and the Sequoia are still here, and can’t wait for the Sequoia renovation that the Mill Valley Film Festival is doing), but my family does carry on the tradition of visiting the temple of Mt. Tam all the time.
MVL: I LOVE THAT, “TEMPLE OF MT TAM”, SPEAKING OF “TEMPLE” YOU ARE JEWISH CORRECT?
Tiffany: We are. We’re culturally Jewish: we love bagels and matzoh ball soup, as well as Jewish humor and wrestling with ideas, the rituals, and we are close to the Bay Area Jewish community.
Ken: We made an 18-minute documentary film called “The Tribe” that uses the Barbie doll to summarize 3000 years of Jewish history.
MVL: SO TIFFANY, YOU AND YOUR GOLDENDOODLE WERE A BIG HIT AT THE MEMORIAL DAY PARADE THIS PAST YEAR AND I THANK YOU FOR PARTICIPATING IN THE DOG PARADE SECTION THAT MILL VALLEY LIVING SPONSORED THIS YEAR. THAT SAID, I KNOW YOU HAVE AT LEAST ONE PET, ANY OTHERS?
Tiffany: We have two: Midnight, our very independent rescue Bombay cat; and our pandemic doggie, Rosalind Franklin aka “Rosie”, named for the woman who first imaged DNA. She is 65 lbs of Goldendoodle love.
Ken: After 2 years of feeding them treats side-by-side twice a day, they have finally established a non-aggression policy and sleep on the bed with us next to each other.
MVL: WHAT ARE SOME COMMUNITY ACTIVITIES YOU AND THE FAMILY LIKE TO PARTICIPATE IN?
Tiffany: When we first moved into our house on Sycamore Ave in 2009 from Potrero Hill in San Francisco, the previous owners who are friends of ours said, “We are just warning you, Halloween is a major holiday for this house.” We didn’t really realize what they meant until over a thousand kids came to trick-or-treat a month later. So over the years, we’ve leaned into that. We’ve accumulated a lot of decorations, put out a smoke machine, created a Frankenstein lab with dry ice, served popcorn, cotton candy, and hosted flash mob dances. Each year we project movies onto our garage with films like The Wizard of Oz and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. This year we had a Love Boat theme and showed all the Halloween episodes including one with Vincent Price.
Ken: Sycamore and La Goma have a wonderful community of families that have block parties, share lemons, figs, and apricots, and volunteer for emergency duties as noted in the planning binders organized by Clare McCamy. And after years of appreciating the Toy Tree on the walk to Park School, we created a Fairy House in front of our house using wood and a glue gun that includes dozens of tiny elves, ladybugs, mushrooms, and fairies.
Tiffany: We also love the literary traffic our “Little (Lending) Library” gets. It’s so great to see the neighbors drop off, peruse, and select. It’s amazing how the books in there completely change each week. During the pandemic, I hosted Zoom Challah Bakes with the girls each week. Many neighbors came on Zoom along with people from all over the world to bake, finding community online during that first intense period of the pandemic. Also during the pandemic, we got new next-door neighbors, and our pandemic puppies are BFFs.
Ken: When the girls were younger, Park School let me give presentations on binary numbers, rockets, 3D printing, and robots in the girls’ classes and at UC Berkeley.
I run a free public lecture series where we host speakers on art, technology, and culture.
MVL: WOW, THAT’S FANTASTIC! AND, BTW, YOUR HOUSE HAS ALWAYS BEEN OUR FAMILY’S FAVORITE ON HALLOWEEN AND FOR ALL THESE YEARS I HAD NO IDEA UNTIL NOW, IT WAS YOUR HOME. OF COURSE, IT ALL MAKES PERFECT SENSE NOW.
SO THIS FEELS LIKE A SILLY QUESTION BECAUSE IN PART IT SEEMS SO MUCH OF WHAT YOU ALL DO IN GENERAL COULD BE CONSIDERED VOLUNTEERING, BUT ARE THERE ANY SPECIFIC ORGANIZATIONS YOU WORK WITH ON AN ONGOING BASIS?
Tiffany: We love to volunteer at the SF Food Bank and Glide, especially helping to carve turkeys over Christmas. Each December we also have an annual family meeting where we all discuss and decide which nonprofits to donate to, and we all participate in making the donations.
Ken: Tiffany’s and my grandparents are from Odessa, Ukraine, and both girls Odessa & Blooma have done volunteer projects that contributed to an orphanage in Odessa called Tikva. Our daughter Odessa, while at Tam, volunteered at and later led Reaching Out with Robotics at the Mill Valley Public Library and helped seniors with technology at The Redwoods through the Cyber-Seniors program.
MVL: I HAVE NO CLUE WITH ALL YOU HAVE GOING ON HOW YOU WOULD HAVE TIME, BUT I’LL ASK ANYWAY: HOW AND WHERE DOES YOUR FAMILY VACATION?
Ken: When we can, we visit family in Los Angeles and New York, and every several years we save up for a big trip to someplace like Israel, France, Greece, or this year, Morocco.
MVL: WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR BEST MEMORIES TOGETHER AS A FAMILY?
Ken: We appreciate life’s absurdities and don’t take ourselves too seriously.
Tiffany: We are always trying to make each other laugh and texting each other things we think are funny. With Odessa at college, we send a lot of visual updates on what we are doing. Laughing in most situations is our family goal.
Ken: We love our weekly screen-free day that we call “Tech Shabbat.” It starts every Friday night with a big dinner with friends and family; I roast a chicken and Tiffany and the girls bake challah. Blooma sets the table beautifully, and we enjoy lots of good conversations. We spend all day Saturday relaxing at home or going out in nature on Mt. Tam with Rosie. Then at 5 pm on Saturday night, we all rush back online to drink from the fire hose again. Barring the exceptions that happen in life- like travel or important events, we’ve been doing this for 13 years and look forward to it as our favorite day of the week.
MVL: THAT’S WONDERFUL, I HOPE EVERYONE READING THIS WILL BE INSPIRED TO GIVE A WEEKLY SCREEN-FREE DAY A HEALTHY TRY, JEWISH OR NOT. LET ME BE THE FIRST TO SAY, WE WILL. BUDDAHTECH COMES TO MIND.
FINAL QUESTION: IF YOUR FAMILY HAS MOTTOS TO LIVE BY, WHAT WOULD THEY BE?
Tiffany: Go above and beyond what’s asked of you. You can do anything you set your mind to. And don’t take yourself too seriously.
MILL VALLEY LIVING’S QUESTIONS TO TIFFANY SPECIFICALLY
Tiffany Shlain’s resume of individual and professional accomplishments is both jaw-dropping and inspiring. Beyond being recognized by Newsweek as one of the “Women Shaping the 21st Century,” Tiffany is an artist, Emmy-nominated filmmaker, founder of the Webby Awards, and author of the national bestselling book 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week, winner of the Marshall McLuhan Outstanding Book Award. The breadth of her work is equally impressive. Working across film and performance, including her most recent visual artwork, Tiffany’s efforts explore topics ranging from feminism, ecology, neuroscience, and philosophy. Her films include the feature documentary Connected, two seasons of her original series The Future Starts Here, and documentaries on reproductive choice. Shortly before the pandemic, the Museum of Modern Art in New York premiered her one-woman spoken cinema show, “Dear Human.”
When the world shut down during COVID Tiffany took time to pause, spending time walking in the redwoods on Mt. Tam with her family and their dog Rosie, which moved her to begin working in sculpture, photography, and mixed media, investigating themes of scale and perspective that nature brings. Based on this new work, she was selected as artist-in-residence by SHACK15 at the SF Ferry Building. The National Women’s History Museum based in Washington D.C and Women Connect4Good came on as presenters of her exhibition Human Nature which is a culmination of her residency. Due to the great response to the show, it has just been extended into 2023.
Awards and distinctions for her work include multiple film premieres at Sundance, selection by the Albert Einstein Foundation as one of the people carrying on his legacy, and the Neil Postman Award for Career Achievement in Public Intellectual Activity. Tiffany is also an acclaimed public speaker with NPR listing Tiffany’s commencement speech at her alma mater, UC Berkeley, on their list of best commencement speeches. She has an international reach, demonstrated by the US State Department using Tiffany’s films to represent America at embassies around the world.
MVL: SO TIFFANY, I KNOW YOU WERE JUST INTERVIEWED FOR THE WOMEN ARE SMARTER PODCAST SERIES ON MOUNT TAM MEDIA WHICH WILL BE RELEASED ON ALL PLATFORMS ON JANUARY 10, 2023, BUT TELL US WHAT ELSE YOU ARE WORKING ON NOW AND WHAT YOU HAVE COMING UP?
Tiffany: I’m really loving working on visual art right now. A lot of the new work is inspired by Muir Woods and Mt. Tam. I have always been fascinated ever since I was a kid by the tree ring timeline at the entrance of Muir Woods. However, that timeline tells such a colonialist and patriarchal story. The tree rings in Human Nature imagine what other histories these trees and nature could tell. This led me to create this new body of work of sculpture, large-scale photography, light boxes, and giant tree rings, including a feminist history tree ring called “Dendrofemonology.” I’m also interested in creating artworks that hope to convey how nature changes your perspective. As a filmmaker, making lightboxes is also really interesting to me. I think of these lightboxes as capturing a moment in cinema, a portal into another world. It’s been so wonderful to see people getting these lightboxes and sculptures for their homes. I’m excited that the exhibition just got extended into 2023. There are a lot of events and tours people can sign up for. The art tours have been really meaningful with lots of good discussions along the way.
On the film front, this coming year I will be working on a new short film on the adolescent brain. It’s the third in a series of films I have made over the years on the development of the brain.
Ken and I will also be collaborating on a new art exhibit in LA that will open in 2024. We have a lot of fun making things together.
This new visual artwork came unexpectedly. At the beginning of the pandemic, there was a film project my producer and I were trying to get off the ground and we were hitting a lot of walls. Then, from my many walks on Mt. Tam, I started creating in new mediums, it felt like there were a lot of openings. I didn’t know where it was headed, but I loved it. Especially the physicality of it.. using my hands, sanding, building, and making.
One of the light boxes in the Human Nature exhibition is an image of a woman on an impossibly large wheel, riding where her curiosity takes her, called THE DEFAULT MODE NETWORK. That’s the neuroscientific term for the state your mind gets when you are in a creative flow, letting your mind wander and make new connections from what’s already in there. That’s the way exploring this new artwork feels… and I wish I could take that bike to the top of Mt. Tam…
MVL: ALL OF THAT IS SO COOL AND WE HAD THE HONOR OF SEEING THE “HUMAN NATURE” EXHIBIT ON OPENING NIGHT.
IT WAS INCREDIBLE. AND SO BLOWN AWAY THAT WE ARE INVESTING IN ONE OF MY FAVORITE PIECES, “EARTHLING”.
Tiffany: It’s been such a gift getting to know you better, learning about and being inspired by the countless ways you’ve contributed to “shaping” and shifting perspectives through your work. Your father would be so very proud.