Aphorisms to Live By

Aphorisms to Live By
Michael Gollin
April 1, 2013

You can quote me:

The purpose of life is to prepare yourself for whatever life may bring your way, and to help others do so, too. If you keep yourself ready to enjoy the good and to cope with the bad, you are leading a purposeful life.

The meaning of life is found by asking, “What is the meaning of life?”

Do more good, less harm. There are no absolutes, but this relativism is enough for living a good life.

The only two things we can control are our relationships with other people and our skills based on experience.

Be patient when things are getting better or can’t be changed, but be impatient when they’re getting worse and they can be changed.

Adapted from other wise people:

Where is it written that life would be easy?

Luck is the intersection of preparedness and opportunity. Luck favors the prepared mind.

Prepare for the worst, hope for the best.

Shared joys are doubled and shared sorrows are halved.

According to the Book of Job, Nature and Fate (God) bring pleasure and pain unpredictably, and the art of living is to accept that we will get one after the other. Who are we to question which we get?
(But we should not accept cruelty or malfeasance by other people.)

Appearances are often different from reality.

Michael Gollin Autobiography

(I wrote my autobiography in under 500 words during two days in March 2014.)

I am a patent attorney at Venable LLP in Washington, DC, striving to help creative people put their ideas to work to benefit society, through private and public effort. Born into a loving academic family in Rochester, NY in 1957, my first job was as a newspaper boy and I initiated an externship program in my high school. Pursuing a curiosity about the wonders of nature cultivated during summers on Cape Cod, I studied biochemistry at Princeton, graduating in 1978, and then received a master’s degree in biology from the University of Zurich in 1981, conducting research on fruit fly muscles and traveling extensively.

Turning toward the integration of science and society, I entered Boston University School of Law and graduated in 1984. There, I co-founded the Public Interest Project to support law students working in public interest summer jobs; 30 years later it remains a vital student program. In my first law firm job in NY, I convinced the Kenyon & Kenyon partnership to establish a pro bono program so I could take a prisoner’s civil rights case. My next firm, Sive, Paget & Riesel, was well known for environmental activism. I settled in Bowie, Maryland in 1990 with my wife, Jill Dickey, and together we have raised three talented children.

I joined Venable in 1998, where I established the Life Sciences practice group and Venable Venture Services. I was able to build a broad practice representing pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and medical device companies, as well as environmental and space technology companies, and leading research institutions including UCLA and Princeton. In addition to obtaining thousands of patents, I have lobbied on patent reform and participated in proceedings before the US Supreme Court and the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals. I am proud to have maintained continuous client relationships for over 25 years.

My pro bono work took me to Belize, Fiji, Kenya, and Tanzania, and led me to found PIIPA (Public Interest Intellectual Property Advisors) in 2002, to expand such service to a global network of IP professionals. I created a course in intellectual property management at Georgetown’s business school in 2001 and adapted it for the Franklin Pierce law school, now University of New Hampshire. I authored the 2008 book Driving Innovation: Intellectual Property Strategies for a Dynamic World to advance global literacy about intellectual property as an engine of innovation in all creative sectors, and I have published numerous law review and other articles and made countless presentations around the world. I have been fortunate to receive many honors, including recognition for contributions to the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. Since I was diagnosed with ALS, a motor neuron disease, in 2012, I have been working pro bono with the ALS Association and MDA to accelerate the search for therapies for this incurable disease. I also launched the creative writing blog, http://www.Innovationlifelove.org. For more information, see my Venable bio.

New Year, New Day

New Year, New Day
Goodloe Memorial Unitarian Universalist Congregation
Michael Gollin
January 5, 2014

Today is a good day! That is my morning mantra. Some days it’s easy to say, and I become euphoric and grateful simply by raising the blinds and watching the spectacle of sunlight shining on the world. The simple act of blessing each new day helps me channel my spiritual power to overcome even my deepest worries and negative emotions as I face sickness and trouble. How could I remain upset when I see each day as a magical present, given to me by forces beyond my control or understanding?

Every day is my birthday, and I can unwrap this miraculous gift again and again. Sure, today will surely include some disappointments, like when the presents we get for our birthday and Christmas or Hannukah don’t live up to our highest hopes, but there are few joys that compare to receiving and accepting a present, and I can’t imagine any better present, or anything more precious than another day of life.

Many years ago, a colleague’s wife died in her 30s from cancer. At her funeral, the rabbi said something that went straight to my heart, where I’ve kept it ever since. He said: “Our days on earth are numbered, and whether the number is large or small is not so important as how we live each one.” His words were like a message from a distant society. At the time I felt immortal, with a new wife, a new home, a new baby, and so many decades ahead of me that it seemed like infinity. I mostly disregarded the spiritual spark within and hustled and bustled, busy building a life for me, my wife and kids, and working hard in my chosen career as a patent attorney.

So here I am, two decades later, a confirmed agnostic who never belonged to any congregation before Goodloe, leading a religious service. I am grateful for the opportunity, and I can now appreciate the hard work that goes into a service.

Things changed in August 2012. I knew something was wrong when I finished a running race much slower than I expected, and was suffering weakness in my hand. I spent about a month with a series of doctors and in October my neurologist confirmed my deepest fear, with the devastating diagnosis of ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. This motor neuron disease causes progressive muscle loss, has no cure, and is terminal. That knowledge forced me to turn a corner onto a dark and scary road through a neighborhood we all try to avoid for as long as we can. And at first I felt like I was walking alone. But very soon, I found myself being led by guiding insights that emanated from my spiritual core, a resource I’ve nurtured here with you. Three of these insights relate to the year, the day, and the moment.

First, years — I asked myself a difficult question that fall: What would you do if you had a year to walk, and two years to live? The answer came in a flash: I would walk for a year, and live for two. Elaborating the details to that simplistic response has led me to experience 2013 as the happiest of years spent with family and close friends, at home, at work, and trekking to some of our planet’s most amazing places, fulfilling shared dreams of adventure. I had an instant entourage of family and friends as I hiked the Inca trail to Machu Picchu, followed Darwin’s footsteps in the Galapagos, visited my ancestors’ home towns in Eastern Europe, and went on safari in South Africa. We are all grateful for these experiences together. We will have a good time even when my wandering days are over and I am stuck closer to home. So I don’t worry about how many years I have left. I concentrate on making life a wonderful journey all the way. Wherever the road leads this year, I will enjoy the journey.

Second, days — The morning after my diagnosis, I woke up to a beautiful autumn day and felt pure ecstasy just to be alive. I put on my running shoes and off I went down the trail. I experienced transcendent joy – and even though I broke down sobbing with grief after a half mile, I kept going. Soon I made a vow to have such experiences every day, and somehow I conditioned myself to expect a continuous flow of magic moments. Why wouldn’t I wake up happy?

Third, moments – As soon as I received my confirmed diagnosis, I realized how hard it would be for my family to hear what I had just heard and so I came up with a way to soften the blow. I told them that I had good news and bad news, the good news being that I am very good at self-diagnosis. They knew immediately what the bad news meant and that is how we began to live in the new world, together. In dozens and hundreds of encounters since then, I have dropped my grief bomb on relatives, friends, and colleagues and shared every kind of reaction, from shock, to grief, to disbelief, with some people comforting me, and others requiring me to reassure and comfort them. All this loving, sharing, and empathy forged a growing and deepening bond with many people. Even at my law firm, a formal workplace, soon I found myself surrounded by all the hugs I can handle. People tell me it’s inspiring to see how I find silver linings among the storm clouds. I think what they mean is that I give them some confidence that they too will be able to handle the challenge well when it is their turn to follow me.

So those were some guiding insights. Now let’s take a time travel trip together to further understand the Mantra of Today.

Billions of years ago, there were no days, or years. Matter and energy were still new, and I get confused about when time began, or even what it is, but for our purposes let’s just recognize that eventually our spinning Earth began orbiting around the Sun, and that’s when years and days began in the way that we can all understand. And for billions of years to come, it’s a safe bet that there will be day after day.

Millions of years ago, vast ecosystems of life had formed in every sea and on every land mass. Sunrise and sunset in the Jurassic period were about the same as now. The profusion and variability of microbes, plants, and animals was unstoppable, despite mass extinctions now and then – and humans rose up on their hind legs and began running around in social groups that could outwit even the baddest of predators and prey. Like us, and the rest of their neighbor species, they awoke each day and went about their business.

Tens of thousands of years ago, as agriculture began, chiefs and Pharaohs and ancient priests began to organize the solar year into lunar months and set aside certain days as sacred.

Over the centuries, countless societies continued to rise and fall. Thousands then millions and billions of babies were born on their birthdays, grew up in happiness, or misery, and lived each day as best they could until the day they died. Even in war or disaster, survivors woke up each day and found the will to go on.

My own family history began about 150 years ago, when Russia required Jews to select a family name, and the records from then on allowed me to find where they lived, their birth year and who made it safely to America and when. Like us, every family begins to celebrate its own special holidays, with anniversaries, and dates of birth and death. But in my view, we should respect our family heritage, our ancestors and societies and the whole brilliant bundle of everything in our past, present and future, every single day.

So the years and seasons come and go, and the months and weeks form nice and convenient cycles of days. It’s great if we can celebrate the Sabbath, birthdays, anniversaries, and national holidays. But why stop there? Why not celebrate our family heritage, our societies and the whole brilliant bundle of everything in our past, present and future, every single morning?

And is it enough to greet each morning with joy? A family friend told me her story of surviving the Holocaust by leaving Lithuania days before the Nazis arrived. Every night since then, she gives thanks for the day she had just been fortunate enough to experience. So I added that to my mantra: in the morning, I say today is a good day. At night, I recall some positive events – hopefully I shared some love and made the world a bit better somehow — and then I say that was a great day, thank you. And this evening mantra made me even prouder of my spiritual achievements.

But wait, there’s more – one morning I listened to Krista Tippet interview Buddhist monk Thich Nat Han, and it dawned on me that he strives to be fully present, grateful, and aware in every waking moment. Few of us could meet that high standard. As for me, I am pleased to be able to enjoy each day a few times – but I realize there are infinite moments in every day that I could better appreciate.
Try it now. Close your eyes for a moment and try to experience gratitude just for being alive here today.

***

With that mindset, I can explain how living every day with gratitude can help us fulfill not one or two, but all Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism.

1st Principle: The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
The sun rises and sets for all of us, together. All people live their lives day by day, but each of us experiences our daily lives differently, with joy or sorrow, love or grief, comfort or privation. My day is neither more nor less valuable than yours.

2nd Principle: Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
Nelson Mandela was stuck in his cell for 27 years, about 10,000 days, and he used this time to prepare for liberation from apartheid, and to cultivate compassion toward his captors while insisting that they treat him with decency, day by day.

3rd Principle: Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
Each day brings a new opportunity for spiritual growth. My membership in this congregation has helped me cultivate my spiritual garden with help and encouragement from all of you, and I hope I am returning the favor today.

4th Principle: A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
Even if I faced physical sickness, or troubled relationships yesterday, today I can search for higher truth and deeper meaning and transform negative experiences into positive lessons.

5th Principle: The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large; and 6th Principle: The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
We are defined by the accumulation of choices we make every day. When you decide that every day is precious, you make your decisions count. You speak out and support causes that matter.

7th Principle: Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
Each day of my life is also a day in the life of the trees and grass, the birds and squirrels, the ants and crickets and the flow of wind and water around me and around the world, from before recorded history began, and on until who knows when. As I savor today’s precious gift, really what I am experiencing is gratitude and responsibility for being a part of such an astoundingly beautiful and complex world.

You may also notice an analogy to another principled day by day approach. Alcoholics Anonymous urges daily recitation of the serenity prayer. My version is:
Grant me the strength to change the things I can, the patience to accept the things I can’t, and the wisdom to know which is which.
Strength, patience, and wisdom can be restored every day.

As Morrie Schwartz was quoted in Tuesdays With Morrie, if you learn how to die, you learn how to live. I have learned how to love living every day, and to paraphrase Bob Dylan, I’m too busy being born to be afraid of dying.

Life is uncertain and no one really knows what will happen and when it will end, for ourselves or those we love. But I know a few things for sure. Each of us was conceived by our mother and father, we were born, we live, and we will die. We come and then we go. The seasons return each year, as our great blue and green earth circles the sun again and again. And as our planet spins, the sun rises in the east every morning and sets in the west every evening. The world will keep going no matter what we do, long after we are gone. All we have to do is get up every morning with a smile and try to appreciate that we are along for the ride. Then we can realize that today is surely a very fine day.

Blue as the Sky

Blue as the Sky
Michael Gollin
May 2013

Once in a while, but not every day, we face a decision that leads to momentous consequences for ourselves or others — life or death, joy or sorrow, blessings or curse, fame or infamy, wealth or poverty. Out of the tapestry of little choices we make in a day, a week, a year, a few stand out as fateful decisions –drum roll, please – Which school to accept, which job, which mate? Where to put our money – buy this house? Where to live? We learn to approach these decisions in our own way and they come to express our identity.

Fateful decisions define who we are. We all ask the eternal question, “Who am I?” One answer is, “I am the sum of the choices I have made.” You can use Latin to say “I am homo decidere.” I am the person who decides – literally, the one who has cut off other alternatives. I am the paths I have taken, and I am not the alternatives I rejected. I will become the choices that I will make in the future.

One of my favorite lines in literature comes from Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, at the end of the chapter called “The Superman Grows Careless.” Protagonist Amory Blaine, distracted and struggling academically at Princeton, has finished summer school , trying to redeem himself, to stay in school, and to continue his literary achievements. His roommate hands him an envelope from the registrar. Inside is a pink slip signifying success, or a blue slip meaning he failed, may flunk out, and must resign his magazine editor position. His friends gather around him. Suspense builds as he slits open the envelope, looks inside and says dramatically:

“Blue as the sky, gentlemen….”

What does that phrase mean? Instead of sheepishly accepting what would seem to most of us to be a terrible blow, and one due to his own laziness, Amory decides to express his fate with an artful simile of freedom and beauty. A blue sky is heavenly, promising, a gift of clear weather. He saw bad news and found good wrapped within it. He had already chosen to be an academic slacker. When he learned of the logical consequence of his actions, he chose to make the most of the moment. He chose to react poetically to what his own deeds, and the decisions of others, had presented to him. His choices led him up to that bad moment, and then he made the best of it, entertaining his friends.

Reading that passage decades ago as a neither-bottom-nor-top of my class Princetonian, I respected the poise and bravado of facing that moment that way. Now I have a more mature perspective – or at least I hope I do.

The myriad of little choices we make every day can prepare us for the big ones. Thoughtful people work proactively to create options and open doors for themselves. Especially in the US, a central part of living your life well involves learning to make good decisions that advance your happiness and that of your community. Study hard, work hard, stay healthy, do not abuse alcohol or drugs, or other people — be good and be kind. But everyone, even the most self-possessed, fortunate, and hard-working person from time to time faces the problem of how to react to whatever shocks life presents out of its own whims.

Bad news is a test, and we pass or fail each time. As Job realized, the parts of our fate that we control are quite limited. We must accept that fate, or nature, or God, or strangers, can and will trump every choice we make. But even if we did not bring our fate upon ourselves, we can still decide how to react. And moreover, I think that a life well-lived, defined by good decisions that we make within that constrained set of things we can control, actually does prepare us to handle whatever fate brings upon us out of the vast universe of things beyond our control.

When Amory Blaine received his failure notice, he reacted sophomorically, but grandly, making this a “blue sky” moment for him and his friends. Did he learn anything from his troubles? Apply himself to his studies, straighten up, try to help others to succeed? Not so much – it didn’t suit the character or the novel. As readers, we can identify with his bad news bravado. We can also see that the blue slip of failure could have been accepted as more of a cloudy sky than a blue one, presaging bad weather.

Why does this matter to me now? Because while I welcome blue skies, I see that even cloudy skies have silver linings. In summer 2012, I started to see the bad signs fate was giving me about my health. Despite a near perfect exercise regimen, diet, and emotional well-being, I found myself stumbling, slowing down, with weakened hand and slurring speech. I challenged myself through my activities, and found that no choice or decision I could make would improve my condition. So I checked WebMD and other sources and recognized I probably had a neurological disorder. I went to my doctor, then to a neurologist who had me do blood tests and MRIs, and nerve and muscle electrophysiology tests, then to the ALS clinic at Johns Hopkins. In the meantime, I read the detailed criteria for a diagnosis of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), and the differential diagnosis distinguishing other diseases with overlapping symptoms. I read about the average life expectancy of 2-5 years, and the grim course of the illness leading to loss of the ability to eat and to breathe. While hoping for a diagnosis of a treatable illness, I had been telling my wife and kids “hope for the best, plan for the worst.”

There, a half day of testing confirmed what I suspected. The specialist sat me down, and with a grim face said that he was sorry, but the tests confirmed that I had ALS. My response?

“That sucks.”

Not quite worthy of Fitzgerald, but it worked for me. What I learned with my diagnosis was that from now on I had to deal with the worst of all the options I had considered.

The doctor agreed, “Yes, it does.” And the next chapter of my life began in that fateful moment.

After receiving information about follow up visits, I set off on my way back home. Daughter Julia had asked the previous day for a regulation weight Frisbee so she could practice for the high school Frisbee team. I stopped at a few stores but it was October and they had none in stock. I went home for dinner and began by apologizing that I was empty handed. My wife asked about my doctor visit.

“I have good news and bad news.”

What’s the good news, she asked.

“I’m very good at self-diagnosis.”

Her face fell, and so did my daughter’s, and so began the long process of communicating my new reality to others.

The words I chose that day were only words, of course, not a grand action or a major decision. Nothing heroic. But as with “blue as the sky, gentlemen,” those first exchanges with my doctor and my family helped me decide how to approach life with a terminal incurable progressive disease. I was blunt, realistic, and honest with myself and others, and I looked for humorous or at least tolerable ways to think about the unthinkable, and to speak about the unspeakable.

And we found a Frisbee on Amazon and ordered it that day.

The decisions I made in those moments have been followed by countless others: How to tell my other children, parents, siblings? What to do about work? What about insurance? How would our savings hold up? What about my will? What positive impacts should I leave on the world? How would I spend my remaining time? How would I face the small things, like playing with my children?

These decisions continue to define who I am, and who I am not. I am not someone who gives up. I am not someone who leaves others in the lurch. I am not in denial. Nor am I hopeless. I am not someone who misses a beautiful sunset, a game of catch, my own overall fitness. I am someone who strives for perfect health – with one unavoidable exception. Someone who tries hard to love my wife, my children, my parents, siblings, cousins, friends, co-workers, and as much of humanity as I can.

I decided to celebrate life, to spend time with my family, to continue practicing law for my preferred clients and to benefit my law firm colleagues, because rewarding work is one of life’s great privileges and I enjoy those rewards built on a career of 35 years of decisions since I graduated college (unlike Fitzgerald) – and even before then. I will do what I can to accelerate research to find a cure for ALS, perhaps for myself, but definitely for everyone else who will contract the disease for years to come – over 100,000 per year, worldwide. As I learn about exercise and supplements and other things that could help ALS patients, I will share that with others, and I am mobilizing a public platform to do that.

And I will travel and play and write and laugh and cry and enjoy life every day, to the best of my ability, for as long as I can. Fate does not define who we are. Rather, fate presents us with opportunities to decide who we are.

My closing thought is a wish for each of us to be prepared to make the right choices, especially the most difficult ones. Even if the sky is cloudy, we can mine the silver linings. And we can reflect on our choices and our luck – good or bad – and celebrate them publicly with “blue sky” style.

***

Running for Life – The Running Song

    Running for life – The Running Song

Michael Gollin
October 2012

I knew something was wrong in mid-August when I finished the Falmouth Road Race. A few days later I told my doctor I was there to see him because I ran 7.2 miles in the humid heat and it took me 1:16. We both chuckled and he said he was jealous. But I explained that in past years I’d run the same course in just over an hour. Despite rigorous training, I was getting slower, and feeling weak. My right foot felt like it was slapping the pavement and my right hand was losing its grip, and cramping. I had lost five pounds.

Running became a central part of my life four years ago, when family members and friends convinced me to join 12,000 others in the Falmouth Road Race, which winds along the beaches and through the picturesque woods and towns of Cape Cod. The road racing boom we are enjoying today can be traced back 40 years, when a Falmouth bartender started the race to honor Frank Shorter’s 1972 Olympic Marathon victory. Shorter runs this race most years at a good-humored pace that allows a lot of us to brag that we raced against an Olympian and won. For me, Falmouth had become the core of my annual running plan, just long enough to be a real test of grit and training, but short enough to keep the day job, and bring the kids into the team. Each year I had been pushing closer to the 60 minute mark and thought I could do it this year, but I just couldn’t.

I kept running through September, including a short run over the Brooklyn Bridge, but I didn’t get any faster. The doctors spoke of various explanations, none of them good. I told myself that fitness has positive side effects, and as long as I was running, everything would be OK. Friends said hey, you’re 55, you’re not young anymore. I backed off to easy 2.6m and 5k runs, accepted my more leisurely pace, and took the time to enjoy my surroundings. A tune came to me one day, and I named it Running Song and put lyrics to it in subsequent outings, humming the tune to keep time. (see https://innovationlifelove.org/2014/05/05/id-rather-be-running/) My jackrabbit son slowed his pace to join me a few times. Despite my fears, this was a beautiful period, and running helped me fully experience the miracle and joys of late summer life.

Bad news came at the beginning of October, after a battery of tests including electrophysiology and 3 MRI’s. The neurology specialist at Johns Hopkins diagnosed me as having the early stage of ALS, a degenerative disorder commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, which involves the gradual breakdown of motor neurons, and atrophy of muscles throughout the body. What was happening to my hand and foot was going to expand to my whole body, including limbs, trunk and head. There is no cure. ALS patients lose the ability to eat and breathe, and average life expectancy is 3-5 years, with a small chance of living 10 years or more. With that diagnosis, I was suddenly living a worst case scenario.

And yet, when I woke up the next morning, I was truly happy to be alive, and I got up and went for my run. This time I had a new experience that I’ve never heard a runner talk about — I choked up, and broke into uncontrollable sobs at the half mile mark, and again after about a mile. I ran right through them and finished a bit faster than my previous time, and felt at peace.

That weekend, I ran a new charity race, a 5.4K lap around the Crofton Parkway in the neighboring Maryland town, with yard sales and kids selling lemonade on the sidewalk. A bald eagle circled over the starting line while the fire department played the national anthem. I ran it in 32:55, 4 minutes faster than the previous weekend. My wife and I congratulated a 40ish 1st time racer who had quit smoking and started training 8 weeks before, and finished in 40:00, with his father in law at his side. He was clearly euphoric about how running had changed his life. I felt great, too.

I know my body very well from years of tracking running times, pulse, breathing, weight, and the myriad of small pains and sensations that tell us what’s really going on. Running also keeps me attuned to the workings of my mind. Feelings of strength and courage, resolve and optimism alternate with weakness, despair and disappointment over minor failures. Raw competitiveness (I’m going to pass this guy!) blends with true generosity and community (Looking good, keep it up!). These emotions exercise our minds and spirits just as training and racing exercises our muscles and sinews. Running is medicine. And I will keep doing it as long as I can.

Believe it or not, there are advantages to being diagnosed with a terminal disease. Every day is a gorgeous gift and I wake up passionate about doing the best I can and relishing every moment. My wife, kids, and friends have been amazingly supportive, and I realize that I am not alone, and lots of good things are going to happen in my life. The other day, when we were speaking about my plans to run Falmouth again next August, my 15 year old daughter suddenly volunteered that she will join me – despite having rebuffed invitations for years. I can be a good role model and I plan to use what leverage I have. I’m suddenly more interested in the wheel chair racers. There are many opportunities to do charity.

I have no complaints. Even though I’ve been dealt a bad hand, I’ve had a lot of really good ones to play. Runners know that there’s nothing wrong with struggle. Human nature turns challenges into opportunities, and the very effort offers a path to deeper meaning – win or lose. Life is good, and running helps make it better. I plan to enjoy both as much as possible for as long as I can. I’m training for my next race.