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,

How to Raise Kids (Answering My Son’s Questions – Part 5)

How to Raise Kids (Answering My Son’s Questions – Part 5)

Michael Gollin (with help from Max Gollin)

Marry the right spouse, someone who wants to raise kids well. Wait until you have time to devote to parenting.  Then wing it.

We read lots of books and took advice from our parents and relatives and older friends.  You get to see various approaches, lenient or strict, serious or silly, cheap or expensive.

Each time Jill was pregnant, I was terrified that I would fail as a father. With Natasha, it was fear that I would do something basically wrong. With Max, I couldn’t imagine fathering two kids successfully at the same time, and with Julia, how could I handle three?

I think my existential angst came from the realization that babies begin life completely dependent on parents for everything, then as you raise them, they have to grow into completely independent adults, and this metamorphosis is inherently traumatic and seemingly impossible without massive disturbance. There is no easy path.  But I believe most activities in life that are worth doing are difficult.  Raising our kids is the most worthwhile endeavor of my life.

Editor’s note: this is part of a series of advice letters my dad wrote for me in September 2014 when I asked him for some guidance on the big things in life –Max

How to Balance Work and Family (Answering My Son’s Questions – Part 4)

How to Balance Work and Family (Answering My Son’s Questions – Part 4)

Michael Gollin (with help from Max Gollin)

In 1994 Boston University law school awarded me the Young Lawyer’s Chair for public service.  I remarked that I had achieved a balance of guilt: when I was doing billable work I felt guilty for not doing enough pro bono work, and when doing pro bono work I felt guilty about not doing enough billable work. I figured if I didn’t feel guilty both ways then I was out of balance.  Maybe that’s my Jewish upbringing.

The same formula applies to work and family.  If you don’t feel guilty at work, you’re not spending enough time with family.  If you don’t feel a little bit guilty at home, then maybe you’re not working hard enough.  I always preferred the second kind of guilt.

At a certain point I had more worthwhile things to do than time. It wasn’t a question of wasting time any more but of choosing among worthy things.

To help me choose, I came up with an algorithm.  For any opportunity, I gave a score of 0 to 3 for professional factors like helping clients, developing new clients, helping the profession, and public interest, and for personal factors like Jill, kids, family, friends, exercise, and culture. A high composite score sent me to speak at a conference in Anaheim, stopping to see clients at UCLA on the way, after stopping at Vail to ski with Andy , and after the conference stopping at SLC and skiing with Mike Polacek and Henry, then on to UC Davis for more client work.  Even though the immediate family got nothing from it, every other factor was high for the 12 day trip.

Another factor is that I have been keenly aware that my success at work has been vital to the well-being and security of our family.  I am very deeply proud of the stability that I have been able to provide.

Editor’s note: this is part of a series of advice letters my dad wrote for me in September 2014 when I asked him for some guidance on the big things in life –Max

Endless wind

I rolled out Skipper’s Pier
Setting sun behind me
Strong wind in my face
From afar and blowing free.

When I was young my father
Made up fairy tales at bed.
I told my kids of sailing trips
That from this pier were led.

White cap waves in harbor
More out in the bay
If I had a rainbow boat
I could sail away.

But back to land I roll again
and family and fun.
Though times are hard, with love I see
Our stories are not done.

Giving Thanks, Always, Even in Grief

Giving Thanks, Always, Even in Grief
Michael Gollin
December 2014



It wasn’t easy, but fourteen family members gathered at my brother’s home in Santa Fe for a joyous and spiritually meaningful Thanksgiving. After months of planning, and equipped as carefully as a Mount Everest expedition, I flew cross country with my wife, two of my children, a 250 pound power wheel chair, a bipap breathing machine, liquid food for my feeding tube, and a doctor’s note pleading for leniency from the TSA because of my disabilities caused by ALS. We had VIP treatment by the counter staff, security officers, and flight crew. Except for a delay in Washington caused by an early snow squall, the trip was fine.

My family is full of problem solvers. Brother Jim used a trailer to haul the heavy wheel chair, and made his adobe house handicap accessible using ramps and equipment generously sent, with encouragement, by Compassionate Care ALS.

Preparations for the feast were the mellowest we could recall. One reason was massage by Solar, a Brazilian shaman. When it was my turn, he didn’t work on my body, instead focusing on my spirit, which he believes surrounds our bodies and connects us to each other and everything else. It was his form of therapy and meant a lot to him. Although it was weird, it got me thinking that my body is getting weaker, but not my spirit. He was right, that I can strengthen my spirit even as my muscles atrophy.

I believe in both the physical and spiritual unity of nature. Our atoms come back as butterflies and flowers and rivers and people, and our memories and works live on. So why not our spirits, too, in an endless cycle?

Our Thanksgiving tradition is for each person to give thanks in remarks short or long. I thanked each family member for their remarkable traits, using my speaking app. I realized our Thanksgiving celebrations have become a quasi-religious ritual that we practice every year diligently to celebrate our love for each other and our good fortune, as descendants of immigrants in this great nation.

This year we were able to extend the celebration the next day with a spiritual retreat at the Upaya Center down the road. My family is not emotionally expressive. My terminal illness is the 800 pound gorilla and elephant in the room that no one really knows how to deal with. But through exercises involving meditation, writing, reading, and listening, Roshi (Zen master) Joan Halifax got us all openly sharing our experience of grief, and thereby, love.

Roshi Joan’s life work includes helping caregivers to apply Zen compassion in dealing with people who are terminally ill. She says when one family member is seriously ill, the whole family shares it. Her latest book, Being With Dying, is a gentle guide through this rough terrain. She had the 14 of us sit with her in chairs in a circle in the huge, simple sanctuary of planks and logs. We began by grounding ourselves and meditating about having strong backs and soft compassionate fronts.

Channeling my insight from the day before, I recited a prayer: Oh! Spirit that connects each of us to each other and our physical world, let us enjoy this adventure to find more meaning together.

Then out came paper and pens, and everyone was asked to write for five minutes, beginning: “What I have learned about grief is…“ We swapped and read the nano-essays, with authors unidentified. Remarkably it was almost impossible to know who wrote what. I guess we were writing about general truths.

Here is what I wrote.

What I have learned about grief is that it is a process of digesting trouble into something we can tolerate and even find strength and emotional nourishment. But it is easy to get stuck in shock denial anger or bargaining and not find our way to the peace of acceptance. It is a skill that can be mastered with help. I go through it every day at least once, sometimes more as I mourn the loss of yet another ability and contemplate mortality.  And I am refreshed and relieved when I come through it again, each time.

Some other remarks were:

All of a sudden an image, a memory, a place takes you back to an event with someone now gone. … The emptiness causes your heart to shudder and your eyes to tear and your breath to catch. Then you move on, remembering only the warmth that once was there.


Each variety of grief is different.


Grief… Is ever present in all life, lurking under a rock, present in a tingling partial way, or full on, in sobs of despair… Life fully without grief is a false goal but too much grief can overcome joy, and life itself. I… rationalize:… Dying is part of life… I sob quietly. And that is OK too. The sobs stop. Life goes on.


Devotion takes as many forms as grief, its counterpart. In devotion, we find salvation from the ravages of grief.


It makes me sad to see others I care about and love feel sad. It’s good to know what others are feeling and to be open with each other.


Grief doesn’t seem like a good thing, ever, but it has the ability to teach you about yourself and those around you.


It’s so much easier to distract yourself, and it feels much better. But it’s not something you can ignore forever. Something reminds you, …and then grief reaches in, pulls for you at high tide. It’s not just one feeling, either. It’s sadness, rage, confusion, hopelessness, nostalgia, desire, guilt, betrayal, everything that comes with disaster, pain, and tragedy.


There are certain kinds of grief which I do not believe I will survive… I know – somewhere in my DNA, the code that makes me human – I have the strength to survive it. So does everyone.


When grief enters my thoughts, nothing ever seems to be as it should be.


Everyone is different. Some people can’t cry sooner, but probably everyone does later. Crying is a therapy of its own sort.


Grief cannot be eliminated, only deferred or low-keyed or overlaid with other feelings and thoughts.

Then we wrote again. “Something I didn’t say was …” I wrote:

…how glad I am to hear the many points of wisdom and deep emotional expression from my family. I feel so very fortunate. 

Others wrote:

In the end it is only the love that matters, it’s the love that is the tracks we leave in the sand.

I think everyone is experiencing grief a little differently but there are also lots of similarities.

Almost everyone in the world grieves. But still, my own grief is not diminished by that awareness.

Getting one’s grief out for others to see is a liberating experience for both the grievers.


My closing prayer was: I pray for compassion, each for the other and for all of humanity and our world.

We all wrote and spoke about grief but there was lots of love in the family circle. Grief is universal and is yin to the yang of love. You don’t grieve unless you love. You can’t love without facing potential grief.

I told Roshi Joan when we planned this retreat that my family has hard shells. She told me afterwards that I was wrong. We all opened up. My mother has been suffering with tearfulness and visible grief about my illness for two years and now she feels not so alone. My father has tried to put on a happy face but now he is being more open, too. They both were able to speak about losing their parents and so many dear friends. My siblings, wife, children, and nephews and nieces all shared a fragile side. We all grew stronger, together.

On the Saturday we went to Chimayo, known for its hot peppers and the Catholic shrine. The church has a little room with a floor of dirt that is said to have miraculous healing powers. I drove my chair to the doorway and although I didn’t fit all the way in, I stood up and my brother sprinkled dirt on me.

According to that tradition, I am therefore cured. At least my spirit is.

reprinted at http://www.upaya.org/newsletter/view/2015/01/06




Grain of Sand

Grain of Sand
Michael Gollin
Rehoboth Beach
June 2014



2013-07 605 - Copy

Rain drops form a puddle
Sand grains shape a beach
Baby makes a family
The world is made of each

Words become a story
A note begins a song
Child sibling cousin spouse
And more before too long

Trees support the forest
Two halves make a whole
A board becomes a home
A brick defines a wall

Players make a team
Cells live inside a body
Students make a class
A building builds a city

Beans with rice in rice and beans
Potato in a stew
Yin in yang and yang in yin
Something else holds every thing

A breath inflates the sky
A moment lasts forever
I’m looking for the glue that binds
the single bits together.