Unauthorized Biography

Unauthorized Biography
Rita Gollin
September 6, 2017

Editor’s note: Recently, my mother sent me these succinct yet beautiful stories from my upbringing. I asked her for permission to share them on my blog, and she said she was honored. So, here they are:

Dear, darling, forever and deservedly and unreservedly beloved Michael,

I’ve always loved you and always will.

In the fall of 1956 when we decided it was time to have a second child, we discovered that you had already begun to be. Then on July 3, when my parents Max and Sophie Kaplan drove from Brooklyn to Rochester for the Big Event, I served dinner, then called my OBGYN Dr. Thro, and headed for the hospital.

When the doctor arrived at the labor cubicle, the just-installed resident told him that since I wasn’t screaming I was not ready to deliver, whereupon I said, “Dr. Thro, you’d better come in and catch this baby”– which he did. None of us reached the delivery room. The brand new nurse helped me onto a gurney, told me to grab the crib behind it, placed you in it, and said, “Don’t worry, B was the average grade in my graduating class.”

My parents remained for a few days, babysitting Kathy, but also—we later realized—so the family back in New York would assume they had stayed for a bris. In fact, however, our OBGYN had invented an ingenious device that constricted blood to the foreskin and so precluded cutting.

Life proceeded smoothly, punctuated by such events as a first birthday party for you and Judy Harway on the Harway porch.  Shortly before, our friends the Hadasses offered to lend us their nearby house for the summer. But soon after I arrived for a walk-through, you disappeared—then reappeared almost immediately at the top of the staircase, delighted by your new achievement.

On a birthday soon afterward, you immediately put to use your new hobby horse, cowboy hat, and regalia including a red vest, bow tie, and holsters. Nana helped celebrate at a new restaurant on the roof of the airport—where the birthday cake arrived studded with sparklers. Fireworks filled the sky soon afterward, which you (understandably) concluded were also acknowledging your birthday [Editor’s note: this fourth birthday party is my earliest memory].

While crossing the large meadow behind a friends’ pool club soon afterward, you dropped your new wristwatch. Determinedly, you searched in a pattern of decreasing squares until you did indeed find it. Our friend Viv Harway was so impressed that she invited you to serve as an expert respondent for one of her child psychology classes. Your reward was a leather change purse, in a sense your first wages.

Another event at about that time was really a group event. Because Strong Memorial Hospital concluded that medical students would benefit from observing a cross section of four-year-olds at play, they set up a nursery school and charged low fees. But instead of achieving a representative cross section, the class was almost entirely composed of faculty children. It was not long before all you realized that the room’s large “mirror” consisted of one-way glass, and began cavorting before the observers you never saw.

Just a bit about our days on the SS France en route to England. The five of us shared a single cabin—you and Kathy in one set of bunk beds, your father and I in another, and Jim in a crib in the middle bolted to the floor. You named the cabin “BooTiki”—designating second level B, cabin 260. We registered you all for the children’s program, vaunted for its meals, shows, and games. But for the return trip you all refused to be “jailed.” Subsequently and consequently, we all occupied a table for five in the main dining room.

Renting a house in the Village of Datchet (near Windsor and Eton) made you and Kathy eligible for the local school—Eton Porny. So you could say that you went to Eton for a semester. Though all the other boys wore shorts, you stuck to long pants, declaring “I am an American boy.” The other students’ accents amused you, as when you mimicked their pronunciation of “rubbahs.” But you happily raced through the series of increasingly challenging “readers” that your teacher had at her disposal for students who had finished their assigned work. And you didn’t complain about lunches at the English Restaurant across the street, beyond remarking that all the food was beige.

That winter, we left Datchet for our lengthy trek through Europe (pausing for three months at Cabo de Palos)—armed with Legos, books, and miniature animals–eventually returning to London and sailing for home.  Among the many memorable prior events was celebrating your birthday at the huge amusement park on the southern bank of the Thames, which offered scores of carousels and other alluring rides and games.  When the coin you inserted in one of them garnered a large prize, you thought it was a rigged birthday gift (as would happen again years later when you went fishing on your birthday and caught masses of bluefish).

Because I began teaching full time after returning to Rochester, we enrolled all three of you at the preeminent country day school called Harley.  Perhaps you remember coming home the first day and exulting that you had met someone smarter than you were, Eric Worby. And as we soon heard from Marcia and Sy Worby, Eric had said the same thing about meeting you.  As an indirect consequence of the Worby family’s interest in chamber music, you began studying the viola in middle school (training that served you well when you joined the Brighton High School orchestra and years later performed in Swiss villages). Of course we shared your dismay when buying 37 Glen Ellyn Way required switching you to Brighton’s schools (where at Viv’s urging, you were all tested and consequently “skipped”).

A random memory. Perhaps after we had started renting at Santuit Pond but before we bought our Mashpee cottage, you and Jim decided to pool your allowances and buy a canoe. So we went to the Rochester store that handled them, and you made your choice (graciously accepting a small subsidy).

Then after buying the cottage, because we agonized about depriving you of group activities, we registered you and Jim for a two week session at a Scout camp not far from the Sagamore Bridge. But after only a day, you were ready to leave. Why should you line up to go swimming or take out a boat, you asked, when our family had no such requirement? So we immediately collected you. And of course, neighbors’ kids and numerous guests provided ample group activities.

Of course, I sometimes worried about you—as when you stayed out very late at night. And when you (commendably) joined marches that protested the Vietnam War, I feared that you might be hassled or that surreptitiously taken photographs might somehow someday impede any career you chose.  Anxieties about your plan to hitchhike cross country lightened when you agreed to travel from Toronto to the west coast by train.  A copy of “Diet for a Small Planet” precluded concerns about your vegetarian years–and I gladly swapped some of your father’s wine for bushels of vegetables from my office mate’s farm that soon turned into stews and borschts.  More consequentially, we worried about mugging and thefts during your years on Chrystie Street.  And particularly during your last two years at Princeton, your father and I worried that you weren’t given adequate direction and advice.

It’s worth recalling that even in grade school, you were determined to help support yourself—successively delivering newspapers, working as a salesman in Rochester and on Cape Cod, waiting on tables in both places, and perhaps most innovatively, importing and selling Meerschaum pipes while at Princeton.  One of your jobs rightly earned a place on your college applications: iguana sitting. And as one happy result of your Princeton-acquired biochem expertise, you assisted Tom Punnett in some of his experiments—while spending the summer with the Punnetts and enjoying Hope’s cooking.

The position as research assistant that you were offered in Switzerland at the ETH had some remarkably fortuitous results, despite the traumas of the suicide of scientist you were assisting and the redirection of your work. Not surprisingly, you made fine friends and took fine trips during those years (from which we benefited enormously when we visited you). Your commitment to make the most of each opportunity was evident on your trip on the Trans-Siberian railroad, as when you managed to visit a Soviet dissident, and when your fellow travelers persuaded the boat to Japan to await you while you coped with a bureaucratic goof in your paperwork.

Far more consequentially, when you decided that you did not crave a scientific career, you determined that an extra LSAT form was available a train ride away from the ETH at the U.S. military base in Dusseldorf–took and passed the test, and entered the BU law school. Not surprisingly, you thrived. One innovation would turn out to be representative: inaugurating scholarships for students who opted to work for nonprofits rather than paying law firms after their first year of classwork. That scholarship system is still in place and has been emulated by other schools—and was the precedent for the scores of subsequent organizations that you founded and worked for (implicitly expanding the meaning of the term “pro bono”).

One of many happy memories repeatedly surfaces. One summer day when your father and I were vacationing along the Mexican east coast with you and Jim, a young fisherman took us out on the ocean and provided snorkeling and scuba gear.  As I vividly recall, I snorkeled blithely on the surface while watching you instruct your not-yet-licensed brother in the niceties of scuba.

It’s almost impossible to summarize the rich and varied professional and personal life that ensued, as you generously and selflessly augmented the lives of innumerable individuals and institutions. You married a remarkably loving and talented woman, and you and Jill have begotten three unusually independent and enterprising children.  It is understating to say that your InnovationLifeLove blog is filled with wit, wisdom, and moving poetry, whose influence is already enormous. From the start, you’ve been a role model for responsiveness to and appreciation of the natural world we all inhabit, and for your diligent probing of our shared cultural heritage.

I can barely even bring myself to type the letters ALS.  Your determination to make every possible effort to cope with that scourge is heroic. My admiration for you is boundless.  I’ve never been a religious person. But as I humbly and gratefully acknowledge, you are and will always be part of me.

Your loving mother,

Joy in sharing a life in pictures
Michael Gollin
July 2014

4MAG photo scans5

My family put together a half century of family photos into a photographic autobiography for my 57th birthday party. This may be the last year I am able to participate actively, and who knows how many more birthdays I will be able to enjoy? But I do know that these photos are important. They show me together with family and friends, at past homes and on the road, being serious or goofing around. The visual biography tells my story and conveys a powerful and enduring message of a life well-lived and well-loved. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a collection of seven hundred slides shown at four seconds each in under an hour is worth as much as a 10 volume book.

Going through photos has always given me joy. It seems like a miracle that an image can be captured from reality and transferred to paper or a screen. What a beautiful power. We freeze a moment of time and then we relive it alone, or with others. Looking at photos, we share past memories, and create new moments and fresh insights.

But photos, like memories, can be overwhelming. We are surrounded by photos, buried in photos, and it is hard to find a path through the thousands of images each of us deals with over the years. It can become quite disconcerting to work with boxes of prints and albums and negatives and slides, and gigabytes of digital picture files. My younger children seemed intimidated by the project. Who are these people? Where is that place? When did this happen? What is going on?

But there is a way through. A selective memory contributes to happiness, and likewise, I submit, being selective with photos is the key to enjoying them.

Photos themselves are inherently selective. The photographer chooses the moment, the subject, the angle, and the frame of the image. This act distills reality to an essence. But that essence may be off.

Question: How do you take a good photograph?
Answer: Take 100 bad ones.

Getting rid of the bad ones is the first step.

The best and simplest system to organize photos for selection is chronology. Ordering images by time gives a narrative context to the seeming chaos of life. This happened, then that happened. Name all digital folders and photos and albums with the year first, then month and whatever description you want (for example, 1999-12 millennium party).

The other way to select photos is by subject. When the subject is a person, the act of photography itself is a highly social act. As Susan Sontag put it in her 1979 book On Photography, ”To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” The desire to slow time’s relentless melt explains the insatiable modern urge to take endless snapshots and selfies and to post them in an effort to achieve not just celebrity, but immortality.

I’ve always loved photos. For me, as a little boy, photos were fun, and an occasion for family togetherness and action. My dad was a good amateur photographer and took countless Kodachrome slides that infused our early years with vibrant colors. Our 1962-1963 sabbatical trip to Europe was chronicled like a presidency.

Later, I caught the Rochester imaging bug. I got a Super 8 movie camera for my 13th birthday and began filming our 1970 summer trip to northern Europe, without much of an idea how everything would look. You had to load the film, shoot it unload it, package it up, mail it off to Kodak, wait for it to come back developed, then load it onto a projector and show it. The whole thing was magical. I was famous for capturing a candid shot of a Dutch boy picking his nose. In 1971, the Mashpee mob I hung out with all summer filmed a silent movie, called Keep the Faith, about WWI soldiers and nurses. It was the height of campiness. Off-screen, the drama included my camera falling out of a boat into Santuit Pond. The camera was ruined but the film came out ok, with a stylish graininess we attributed to the green algae in the water. Other films remain boxed, waiting for transfer to modern digital technology to release their time capsule images.

In high school, my dad gave me his Kodak SLR. I took a photography class junior year (1972) and learned how to spool negatives into film cans, focus, measure light levels, bracket shots with different exposures, develop the negatives in the dark, print contact sheets, and make test strips and final prints under red light. The vinegar smell of acetic acid fixer was addictive, and the magical alchemy of silver turning from white to black never ceased to amaze me. I enjoyed the assignment of assembling, mounting, and presenting a portfolio of different types of photos. It was fun taking portraits of my friends, and being a subject for their shots. Taking photos gave purpose to my wanderings around my neighborhood, and out into Monroe County. My favorite photo was of a broken down shack on the Erie Canal. It showed clouds through a hole in the roof, and reeds and waves through a hole in the wall, and it won a county-wide photography award. I guess I was developing a good eye.

In college I dabbled with photos, and found myself the president of the Princeton Photography Club. As the only member, I had a key to a darkroom with all the necessary chemicals and equipment for black and white work, and no competition, but no camaraderie, either. I took Bunnel’s course on photography as art, and learned by looking and listening what makes a good photo good, and what makes a great one great. It’s a combination of framing, timing, subject, lighting, and technique (focus, exposure, film and paper, etc.).

I forget what happened to the Kodak SLR, maybe it broke, but when I got to Zurich, Switzerland for grad school in 1978, I found a beautiful used Olympus SLR kit, very light, with a wide-angle and normal 50mm lens. The guy selling it gave me a great deal. It became a constant companion, and I saw much of Europe through its lens. I mainly shot color slides, because they were cheap, and I could shoot a lot and only print a few. Meanwhile, I used the university laboratory to develop and print scientific images like microscope photos of fruit fly muscles, and also an occasional personal roll of black and white film, like in 1980 when I met Prince Charles over tea during his visit to the ETH.

Looking at my Swiss photos now, some are nice, but many are mediocre tourist shots of scenes I came across in my travels. Most are not technically sharp in the way we are accustomed to in the age of automated digital cameras. But there are some beauties. And the ones that hold the most significance are the ones of friends and people I met. My daughter Natasha has a fine eye for architecture and landscape, and takes zillions of well-composed attractive photos that she posts on Facebook. She has a skill I never fully developed. But as I age, I am drawn more to faces. I also like little things, like flowers and bugs, which I shoot with what I call macro-mania.

I was a gleeful photographer during my bachelor years, judging by the number of rolls I shot and the happy subjects. I see how co-workers became friends as we did things together outside of work: parties, sporting events, hanging out. I see how one girlfriend became my wife, and all the others became ex-girlfriends (whose images are not nearly as awkward to see now as way back then).

When Jill and I were married, the traditional festivities included generating an album of photos showing all the family and wedding party organized in our classic subgroupings of bride, groom, parents, bridesmaids, groomsmen, flower girls, ring bearer, etc. In hindsight, wedding albums set the stage for parental obsession with snapping a picture of the new baby’s every act and outfit.

Scan 1417600401999_08_CapeCodWithKids_02 (3)P1030079

We were no exception, and we filled baby albums, while also running video at every occasion. What could be more worthy of preserving for posterity than our three perfect babies? Consistent with the relentless logic of birth order, Natasha was chronicled most, Max less, and Julia least because of the constant need for us to play a 2-on-3 zone defense. Sorry, Julia, for the fewer photos and incomplete albums during your early years. I was lax as a photographer for a few years until we entered the digital age about 2004.

For the past decade, I’ve been shooting digital photos. The really bad photos are deleted in the camera, and it is easy to copy and send them around. They are secured on SD cards, and most are on my computer and backup drive (although I lost some phone pictures along the way). The cameras were fragile and didn’t last long, but I like my waterproof shockproof Panasonic Lumix. It is fantastic to be able to jump in the Pacific at the Galapagos and take photos and videos of sea lions cavorting with us.

For our older daughter’s high school graduation in 2009, then our son’s, we collected photos from infancy through teenage years and posted them on boards and ran slide shows. And now it is my turn.
Many of the photos with me in them were taken with my camera on a timer, or by my companion or an anonymous passerby, and many were sent by family and friends. I appear in about 1 in 20 pictures, which ends up being a manageable number.

Assembling a life in pictures requires a lot of work: Finding, ordering, and selecting prints, and then scanning them to digital; sorting and copying and relabeling and dating digital photos; and arranging them for a slide show or web-presentation. As time-consuming as that may be, it is much simpler and easier than trying to go through old journals, correspondence, folders, and other written records to convey the quality of life I have enjoyed with my fun and loving community of family and friends.

I hope that looking at my photobiography will bring strength and smiles to family, friends, and others. Despite my current troubles, there should be nothing but joy in the big picture.



Joy in Sharing a Life in Pictures