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The Prodigal Blogger

Tuesday, November 27th, 2012

I have allowed this blog to go dormant over the past several months as other projects and interests have grabbed and held my attention. I do intend to drop by here as time allows with occasional posts and updates. But in the meantime, you can find me more regularly on Facebook and Twitter, @johngroganbooks.

Thank you all for following along, and here’s hoping everyone has a happy holiday season.

All the best,


Memoir and Me

Wednesday, April 11th, 2012

I can’t quite believe that five years (and a month) have passed since I resigned my position as a columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer to begin a new life as a self-employed writer from home. (Please resist the image of me lounging in bathrobe and slippers.) The transition was surprisingly easy, considering I had spent the previous 20-odd years nonstop in one newsroom or another. Part of the reason was that I had a project I was passionate about — my second book, The Longest Trip Home. The day after leaving the Inquirer, I got started, but I soon found that writing from home was full of hazards. If my family was home, I couldn’t focus. If I was home alone, I…couldn’t focus. I felt restless, all too tempted to kill time on emails, Facebook, music and a thousand other distractions.

That’s when I discovered Linderman Library at Lehigh University, about a 15-minute drive from my house. It’s a stately old building that feels like it came straight off a Harry Potter movie set: massive stone walls, soaring turrets, leaded glass windows, oak beams and brass chandeliers. But it had something more: a quiet, focused energy that worked for me. I found a corner table and started writing — and didn’t stop until I had a completed manuscript. I’ve been going back ever since.

Which is a long way of saying that I am now teaching a class at the university. I call it “Memoir and Me” — I can’t resist a bad play on words — and the focus is first-person narrative nonfiction writing. My belief is if you want to write you need to read, and I’ve loaded up my students with a fairly heavy memoir list, including some of my personal favorites: Angela’s Ashes, A Walk in the Woods, The Glass Castle, Comfort, The Year of Magical Thinking, Growing Up. I can tell my students find the weekly reading onerous on top of the writing they are required to turn in, but it’s hard to read these great narrative accounts and not fall in love with the magic of a story well told. A couple of these book — A Walk in the Woods and Angela’s Ashes — inspired me deeply while I wrote Marley & Me.

The class is winding down, in its final month, and I’m happy to report that the art and craft of narrative writing is alive and well in the halls of Coppee Hall, Lehigh’s journalism building. My students, many graduating seniors, have moved me with their words…words about death and friendship, loyalty and betrayal, love and hurt, mistakes and lessons learned.

I’m the teacher, and I hope they are learning something. But what they do not know is that they are teaching me, as well. It’s a two-way street, as it should be.

Anyway, here is a piece Lehigh posted on its website this week about the class:

Or, and it is the fourth item down on the left.

A New Year, A New Puppy

Wednesday, January 11th, 2012

It was a year ago this week that our beloved Labrador retriever, Gracie — the sweet girl we brought home in 2004 after the death of Marley — died unexpectedly due to a rare auto-immune reaction to Lymes disease. She was just 6, and should have had many years ahead of her. We were heartbroken, of course, as all pet owners understand too well. Part of the sadness was seeing the effect the loss of Gracie had on our other Lab, Woodson.

Woodson, as regular readers of this blog know, was one of the puppy stars of the Marley & Me movie. At the end of filming, the producer and director presented him to my family as a present. We were instantly smitten, and he seemed to be, too. Gracie was his running partner, and together they would lope from one end of the property to the other, nearly nonstop. They played constantly, nipping at each others necks, tumbling, wrestling. After her death, he moped around alone for weeks. Some nights I would catch him going from room to room on all three floors of our house, and I knew he was looking for her. Eventually, he seemed to move past it, but his happy-go-lucky joy seemed to be extinguished. Without his playmate, he mostly just sniffed quietly around the yard alone. The days of running and nipping and tumbling were behind him.

Enter, the latest addition to our canine family: Wallace. If he looks a lot like a miniature version of Woodson, it might be because they are cousins. We got Wallace from the same breeder who provided Woodson to the movie studio. Diane and Joe Citro are a wonderful couple from eastern Ohio who take a lot of pride in their calm, gentle line of English-style Labradors. Woodson’s father is Wallace’s grandfather. We now have two generations of this beautiful line. (Thanks, Diane and Joe!) And Woodson again has a playmate. The puppy keeps him running and is constantly tiring him out. It’s hilarious to watch.

Wallace is 12 weeks old, and we have had him for the last four. We can already tell he’s going to be a calm dog with a great disposition. He’s making great strides on the housebreaking front, and somehow he taught himself to sit on command without us showing him. I think big cousin Woodson, who automatically sits and puts up a front paw whenever food is in sight, showed him the ropes. Life with a puppy is a little like life with an infant, and the first week or two Jenny and I were walking around the house like two zombies. The puppy was getting us up three to four times a night to go out. And sometimes — most often at about 3 a.m. — he simply wanted to lie in the grass and chew a stick. Now he is consistently sleeping through the night, which is welcome.

At any rate, a puppy photo is worth about 6 million words. So here are a few more shots of the little man.

Wallace (left) with his twin brother at about four weeks before we brought him home.

Woodson and Wallace getting acquainted on the puppy’s first night home.

I realize this probably constitutes puppy porn, but we could not resist dressing him up for the holidays.

The Storm That Silenced the Band

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011

UNPLUGGED: From left, John, Neil, Bob, and Dan

Today’s topic is the bizarre Halloween blizzard of 2011, and how it shattered not only countless thousands of tree limbs across our region, but also the rock-n-roll fantasies of four middle-aged guys.

I am not quite sure where to start. I suppose with the fact that on Friday evening, October 28, it began snowing on our home in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley and by the time we awoke the next morning, the scene outside was a perfect winter landscape. If it weren’t for the fact that it was not yet Halloween, it would have really been quite lovely. The snow was heavy, the tree branches still loaded with leaves. Pretty soon limbs began to snap and branches to fall. At a little before 11 a.m. on Saturday, our lights flickered once, twice, three times, and then went out for good. As it turns out, we were among hundreds of thousands across the Northeast left powerless by the storm.

At this point, I need to back up and tell you about a pastime of mine I have not mentioned here before but is relevant to this tale. For most of the 1990s, I played bass in a newsroom rock band in South Florida, where I was working. The members came from the Miami Herald and Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. We were all reporters by day, wanna-be rockers by night. We called ourselves The DropHeds, a reference to an arcane headline term, and we were strictly amateur (and I the most amateur of all). But we had tons of fun, and actually got paying gigs at festivals and clubs around South Florida. Free beer to boot. Over the years, we bonded like brothers, and when I left South Florida in 1999, the goodbyes were not easy. I packed away my Rickenbacker bass, muttered, “Time to grow up,” and put it behind me.

Over the ensuing 12 years, my fellow DropHeds and I sent occasional emails suggesting a reunion, but nothing ever came of it. Until this fall. We set our band reunion for…yes, you surely have guessed it by now… Halloween weekend. The plan was to arrive Friday night, spend Saturday and Sunday dusting off our old set list, and some new songs as well, and then play for a small party of friends Sunday night. Beer and barbecue out in the barn, Halloween decorations, a bonfire…you get the picture. It was gonna be perfect. Guy bonding nirvana. Leading up to the big weekend, we all practiced our parts individually (Thanks, youtube!) to shake off some of the rust.

By plane and auto, the DropHeds arrived on Friday night: Dan (rhythm guitar/vocals) from Washington, D.C., Neil (lead guitar) from Delray Beach Fla., and Bob (drums) from Norfolk, Va. We plugged in our amps, tuned up, and rattled the house for four hours before calling it a night. The next morning, we were just getting ready to jump back into it, when — poof! — out went the lights. And the water. And the toilets and heat. Eternal optimists (or was it denial?), we were convinced the power would be back on in minutes. We waited, and waited some more. We waited for the next three days, sitting in front of the fire, catching up, laughing (to keep from crying) at our ridiculous bad timing. We flushed toilets with water hauled up from the stream, cooked by flashlight, and slept in wool hats and sweatshirts. What began as a band reunion morphed into a sort of bizzaro Outward Bound adventure.

Of course, there were many jokes about how, yes, there really is a god of rock-n-roll, and he simply could not sit back and allow us to once again plug in and blaspheme his sacred sound.  Must stop them at all costs! A Halloween blizzard and massive power outage! That should work! We never did get to play again (though we amused ourselves with acoustic jams and singalongs), and on Monday morning everyone said goodbye and went their own way. We were all trying to put the best face on what, quite frankly, was a really shitty turn of events. All of us agreed the silver lining of the Great Power Outage of 2011 was the unexpected opportunity to talk at length and really get reacquainted. Had we had juice, we would have been simply uttering monosyllabic grunts over high-decibel E chords. But yeah, say what we might about the power of quality conversation, the truth was we just wanted to play Wild Night.

The power finally came on again last Wednesday night after five days in the dark and cold. Who knew something so basic as running water could bring such delirious joy? I told the band we have to do it again sometime — hopefully before another 12 years sneak by — and next time you can bet I will have a generator backup. Possibly two or three.

An acoustic jam by camp lantern on Day 2 of the outage

Ten Days on Isle Royale

Monday, September 19th, 2011

If you were to fly to Detroit and then get in a car and drive due north, you would arrive five hours later at the Mackinac Bridge, a giant graceful span connecting Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas. If you continued across the bridge and northwest from there another six hours, you would arrive at the tip of an isolated point of land that juts into Lake Superior’s vastness. From there if you continued by water for another three hours, you would arrive at one of the planet’s little known but most precious gems, Isle Royale National Park.

Isle Royale is the country’s least visited national park, and for good reason: It’s so ridiculously hard to get there. The wave-tossed boat ride over is infamous for forcing passengers to surrender their breakfasts over the rail. But the remoteness is key to the charm. There are no cars, no crowds, no (well, few) conveniences. I just returned from 11 days of backpacking on Isle Royale with my good friend, Pete Kelly, and I can say it was worth the logistical hurdles.

Pete and I have been backpacking together since we were undergraduates at Central Michigan University in the 1970s. Last year we spent a week on a backcountry trail in the mountains of central Pennsylvania. But this trip was extra special, something we have been talking about for the past thirty years. Lake Superior is notorious for its harsh, fickle weather and occasional violent storms (let’s all pause to hum a few bars of “The Edmund Fitzgerald”), and I arrived carrying enough cold-weather gear for an arctic expedition. But what greeted us on the island more resembled a holiday in Bermuda: balmy, breezy days with blue skies and crisp mornings. Ideal hiking weather, even if our packs, loaded with above-mentioned woolens and ten-days of mouth-watering dehydrated foods, weighed in at about 50 pounds each.

From the ferry dock, we headed west along the island’s rocky southern shore, making seven miles (and three blisters) before stopping for the night to camp along the water at a site called Daisy Farm. We were sweaty enough to dive into frigid Lake Superior. The water is so cold that a few seconds with your head submerged delivers a monumental case of brain freeze most commonly associated with eating ice cream too fast.

Each day followed a certain rhythm. Up about 7:30, coffee and high-protein cereal, breaking down camp, hoisting packs, walking on average 7.5 miles over rough, rocky terrain with a break in the middle for lunch — peanut butter on pita for Pete; sausage, cheese, and pita for me. Along the trail, we paused frequently to eat the wild thimbleberries (think a spicy raspberry) that grow prolifically all over the island. By late afternoon, we would be in place for another night. The long evenings (it wasn’t truly dark until after 9) were filled with swimming, laundering clothes, taking photos, making journal entries, filtering drinking water, and preparing dinner, a task that involved pouring two cups of boiling water into a foil package of what looked like sawdust, sealing the zipper and waiting for 10 minutes. We often ate while admiring the orange sun slipping into the black water. The national park forbids fires in all but a few locations, and so by 9:30, sitting in the dark with nothing much to do, it was time for bed. I drifted off each night to the lunatic cries of Isle Royale’s signature bird, the loon.

It took about three days to fully get into the rhythm of the trail, rising with the sun, sleeping with the arrival of darkness. But for the final week of the trip I marveled at how the strains and stresses of everyday modern life washed away, replaced by a zen-like sense of inner peace and tranquility. I did not miss my iPad or MacBook or Kindle or Apple TV or Facebook app or Twitter tweets or Pandora; I did not miss them one bit. I did miss my loved ones, but in a good way. The trip was a therapeutic reminder of what is important in life and what is not. When you are carrying everything you need on your back, material possessions take on a whole new perspective. Mostly, they just seem burdensome. On our final full day on the 45-mile-long island, we stumbled across an enormous moose feeding in a pond. We spent 20 minutes inching closer to watch her through the branches, and I was reminded that you don’t need $300 Broadway tickets for a memorable show.

Then it was time to go. In what can only be described as cosmic irony, huge ominous thunderclouds rolled over the island just as we were stepping aboard the ferry to return to the mainland. By the time we were thirty minutes out into the (very rough) waters of Lake Superior, lightning was flashing all around us, rain lashing the island behind us, temperatures plummeting, and gale winds building. This after 10 days of gentle-as-a-lamb weather. Could we have been any more fortunate? If indeed I have a guardian angel, as my parents so strongly insisted, he certainly has a sense of humor.

One last note: The large, greasy hamburger I devoured with a cold beer upon stepping off the ferry in the tiny town of Copper Harbor was the singular most rewarding dining experience of my life. Those conveniences of modern life…not so bad after all.

On the passing of my mother

Monday, August 8th, 2011

My extended family converged on my old hometown of Orchard Lake, Michigan, two weekends ago to say farewell to an incredible woman, my mother, Ruth Marie Grogan.

Many of you who read my memoir, “The Longest Trip Home,” have written me over the last few years to say you felt as if you knew my mother through my writing, and so I thought it only fitting to report on her death. It was a peaceful end on the morning of July 25 – two weeks ago today. She had been in a nursing home since my father’s death in December 2004, and while she still maintained a decent quality of life, she was wheelchair-bound and tired and had let us know she was ready. Mom was a firm believer in heaven, and she died knowing she would be joining her husband, parents, and other loved ones who preceded her in death.

Just as we had hoped for her, she drifted into a deep sleep, and then unconsciousness, and an hour or so after that she simply drifted away. No drama, no trauma, no long descent, a final blessing to a long, and mostly blessed life. Ninety-five years, all but the last six of them independent and brimming with optimism: You can’t ask for much more than that.

I write about my father’s death in The Longest Trip Home, and the painful but necessary decision to put Mom into a nursing home where she could get the care she needed. In the years that followed, she lived as good a life as can be hoped for at that stage. The drug Aricept held her Alzheimer’s disease in check, and she enjoyed visits from her kids, grandkids, and old neighborhood friends. Her four grandchildren had an especially strong restorative effect on her. She would light up when she saw them and find new vigor. Maybe it was the thrill of a new audience to spin her tales of childhood mischief. Ruthie, as we all called her in later life, loved nothing more than a good story, and boy, could she tell them. Just the week before her death, she was out with my brother and sister for a prime rib dinner, which my brother reported she thoroughly enjoyed.

The visitation at the funeral home was more like a reunion than a wake. Many of my cousins, whom I had not seen in years, were on hand, as were old friends of mine from high school and college – and even two of my high school teachers. When a person lives a life as long and full as my mother’s, there is much more to celebrate than mourn. Back at my childhood home later that evening, we toasted Mom with cold beers and told stories about her many memorable moments.

At the funeral the next morning, my brother Tim recited a prayer my mother had composed in her journal. My sister Marijo read the Prayers of the Faithful. Mike and I gave the eulogy in two parts – Mike covering the biography of her life and I focusing on her warmth and sense of humor. And now she is resting in a lovely wooded cemetery in her hometown of Ann Arbor, right beside her husband and with her brothers, sisters, and parents – and the little girl, my sister Mary Ann, she lost at birth – surrounding her.

In my eulogy, I noted that all children think their mom is the world’s greatest, but in my case I am pretty sure it was true. She dedicated her entire adult life to her husband and children, making each of us feel like the most important person in the world. She happily made sacrifices at every turn for our betterment. I will miss her, of course, but mostly I will celebrate the positive mark she left on the world. I will think back on her wit, warmth, and wisdom, and I will smile.

The Longest Trip Home in Hebrew

Friday, June 3rd, 2011

Hot off the press from Tel-Aviv, my memoir The Longest Trip Home is now available in Hebrew. Yes, that’s me on the cover, circa 1973 as a high schooler with my faithful dog Shaun.

The Fox and the Groundhog

Wednesday, June 1st, 2011

We live in the country north of Philadelphia on 19 acres of marsh, meadow, and woods. The property is home to all sorts of wildlife, including geese, ducks, raccoons, groundhogs, rabbits, owls, deer (lots and lots of deer), and two great blue herons, who each morning fish on bony legs in the stream. We also have, I now know, at least one family of red fox.

Being a gardener and living in close proximity with wildlife has its challenges. With the exception of boxwoods and holly, the deer basically eat anything green, and I’ve learned that if I value a plant it needs to live like a prisoner behind a high fence. Our resident groundhogs are not so easily locked out. My hostas and daylilies are their salad bar, and when cabbages and broccoli plants mysteriously began going missing in the fenced vegetable garden I soon found my culprit — a chubby groundhog who had burrowed his way in. I caught the varmint redhanded one morning last week chomping down my celery plants. I grabbed the shovel and raised it above my head. But I don’t have what it takes to kill a cornered animal. He looked up at me with those beady, not-very-cute eyes and flashed his yellow teeth that had so efficiently decimated my crops. “Go on, get out of here,” I yelled and shooed him through the gate, watching as he waddled as fast as he could toward the woods.

The next morning, Woodson the Lab did what I was unable. Unlike his late great companion, Gracie the  unstoppable hunting dog, Woodson is not exactly a feared presence around here. Not even our chickens give a squawk when he ambles over. He has all the predatory instincts of a poet. But the other day, he made a mad dash behind the car, and sure enough got the ground hog. With one canine chomp it was gone, a wad of my daylily leaves still clenched in its jaws. I buried it in the meadow and congratulated Woodson on earning his keep.

That was the victory over nature. Then came the fox and with him (her?) utter defeat.

Besides dogs and cats, we have for many years had backyard chickens. Besides giving us eggs, they offer up large doses of comic amusement. Until recently we had eight hens that gave us about a half dozen multi-colored eggs each morning. With the spring weather, I began releasing them from their fenced yard during daylight hours so they could free-range around the property, filling up on grubs, bugs, and plant shoots. Then about six weeks ago, one disappeared. A month later, another disappeared. In both cases all I could find were telltale piles of feathers. A couple days after the second disappearance, I was drinking coffee in the kitchen when I spotted a red-brown flash in the meadow. From the high grass emerged a red fox. I had my culprit.

For the next several days, I kept the birds confined. But just yesterday decided it was time to give them some free-range time. My idea was to only let them out when I knew I’d be working around the property. Fox are famously shy; our resident wouldn’t be so bold as to attempt a theft right in front of me, would he? About 3 p.m., I was pulling weeds behind the little cottage that serves as my writing studio (where I’m writing this). I heard loud desperate squawks of the type reserved for sheer terror. Rake in hand, I raced around the building just in time to see the fox trotting across the lawn — just feet from the barn — with one of my birds in its jaws. I gave chase, but he quickly disappeared into the high meadow grass. There were feathers scattered all over the lawn. When chickens are terrorized, they lose them in clumps. What was especially worrisome, though, was the feathers were different colors. My fear was the fox had multiple victims.

I found one traumatized hen with her head in a hole, feathered butt high in the air  – the proverbial ostrich with its head stuck in the sand. I held her tight to my chest until she calmed down. Later I located two others hiding in the forsythia hedge, feathers ruffled but otherwise unharmed. That left two unaccounted for. As the saying goes, chickens “always come home to roost” each night. My two missing birds did not. I walked the property with a flashlight, hoping to find them holed up somewhere. No luck, nor none this morning. They are gone. In the battle between wild nature and domesticated husbandry, the score stands at a lopsided 5-to-1. As so many countless others before me learned the hard way, nature in the end always wins.

This morning, my three survivors are back to their old selves, pecking at grass and scratching for grubs — safely inside their fenced yard. And inside the coop, the seven baby peeps are just feathering out, the next generation of egg layers. A new groundhog has begun patrolling the garden perimeter. A half dozen deer have bedded down out by the edge of the marsh. And somewhere out there, a fox family is contentedly sleeping off a big meal.

For those that remain, life carries on.

An Interview with Superstition Review

Wednesday, May 18th, 2011

Superstition Review is the online literary magazine of Arizona State University. It’s editor, Britney Gulbrandsen, asked if she could interview me for the latest issue. “Sure, why not?” I replied.

Britney and I covered a lot of ground, chatting via email about Marley & Me, The Longest Trip Home, my children’s books, and even some of my columns from my days at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Here is Britney’s Q&A with me:

Chicks on Parade

Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

Spring is in full flight here in eastern Pennsylvania, which means, in addition to blooming lilacs, runaway dandelions, and grass that seems to grow an inch an hour, it’s the time for newly hatched chicks.
Regular readers here know I’ve long had backyard chickens. For eggs, of course; but mostly because they are cute and comical and amuse us to no end. My flock over the years has ranged from four to 20. As of late, due in part to a couple of hawk attacks, we are down to seven. I decided it was time to bring in reinforcements.
Over the weekend, my friend Kathy Sproger made the trip to an Agway out in the country to pick up her order and mine. Now on the laundry room counter, in an oversized plastic bin and with a light bulb to provide warmth, I have 12 new additions to the Grogan avian family. There are a few each of buff orpington, black barred rock, and ameraucana, known for their pastel blue eggs.
They sleep a lot, and spend every waking moment doing what they do best, namely eating, drinking, and pooping.
Meanwhile the adult hens are pecking their way across the lawn as I write this, growing fat on earthworms, grubs, and sweet young shoots. And giving us an egg each per day.