Archive for November, 2008

A Celebration of Reading…with the Bushes

Thursday, November 27th, 2008

In 1989, former First Lady Barbara Bush aimed her formidable celebrity and clout in a direction Americans of all political stripes could get behind: helping the illiterate to read. She founded The Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, and during the ensuing 19 years the charity has awarded some $30 million to more than 700 literacy programs spread across all 50 states. And that is a whole lot of resources helping people of all ages learn to read. Bravo!

Every year President and Mrs. Bush hold three different fund-raiser galas to raise money for the foundation — one in Houston, one in Dallas, and one in Maryland. Last week, I had the privilege of being one of six authors featured at the Dallas gala, and what a great time we all had. The elder President Bush and Mrs. Bush were delightful — charming and witty and down to earth. I spent more time with them that day than I imagined I would be able to. First lunch, then dinner, and in the green room before we took to the stage in front of 1,000 guests.

At lunch, I told President Bush that he and I had met once long ago. I was a young reporter in 1984 covering politics for the (oh so powerful and prestigious) Kalamazoo Gazette in western Michigan. Then Vice President Bush swung through town on a campaign swing for his boss, President Reagan. He granted me a one-on-one interview, and for 20 minutes it was just the vice president and me (and, OK, a dozen aides and Secret Service officers) in a room talking. For me, it was a career highlight; for him of course it was a blip. When I told him the story, and how proud my parents were to have a signed photograph from him of our meeting, the famously humble former president seemed genuinely surprised I’d find the encounter worth recounting more than two decades later.

This was not the setting to talk politics, and my mother taught me to keep my mouth shut if I didn’t have something positive to say, and yet I thought I should acknowledge the current president’s tenure in the White House.
“I bet you’re anxious to get your son back home,” I told President Bush.
“Yes, I am,” he said. “I’m proud of him. So much of the criticism has been unfair.” And then he quickly added: “Not all of it. Some of it was deserved. I’ll just be glad to get him back home to Texas and out from under the microscope of The New York Times.” I was impressed by his candor, at once a proud father yet still able to acknowledge the reality on the ground.

The evening was dubbed “A Celebration of Reading,” and my fellow authors and I each were introduced by Mrs. Bush before we read short sections from our books. I read the scene from The Longest Trip Home describing my mother’s attempt to turn her very Catholic bedroom into a romantic honeymoon suite for my new bride and me right after our wedding. It drew big laughs from the crowd, even if it was probably slightly on the bawdy side for this kind of event. “Well, that’s one we won’t forget for a while,” Mrs. Bush quipped to the crowd.

As the night concluded, I told President and Mrs. Bush what an honor it was to be included in their event, and that I felt privileged to have been able to help their worthy cause. Just like that young reporter back in Kalamazoo, I’ll be talking about this day for a long time to come.

Why I Love Austin

Saturday, November 22nd, 2008

You want to know why I love Austin?

Well, partly it is because it’s one of those quintessential college towns. Where the margaritas are made the way you just know God would make them if he were bartending. And where the crab enchiladas can turn even the most hard-bitten skeptic into a believer. And where the hot sauce is just a few degrees shy of life changing.

But those reasons are only why I like Austin.

Here’s why I LOVE Austin. Where else in America can you walk into a tiny bar on a weeknight and stumble onto one of the great music legends of our lifetime? That’s what happened to me Wednesday night. I had arrived in Austin a day early for a book signing at the very cool indie store Bookpeople. It was my final stop of a week in Texas, with stops in Dallas (where I participated in a literacy fundraiser with the elder George and Barbara Bush, who both were gracious and lovely) and Waco (where I spoke before 1,200 people at Baylor University).

As my schedule happened to work out, I had one free night to kill in Austin so I went out strolling and music-trolling on the city’s famous Sixth Street. On a Wednesday night I had low expectations of happening upon the next Lucinda Williams or Roseanne Cash. Sure enough, the first few acts I eavesdropped on were perfectly competent but not very inspired Stevie Ray Vaughn cover bands. I had one beer and was about to call it a night when I heard a thumping rythmn beat coming from Nuno’s, a tiny tavern with a stage squeezed in the front window. Walked in. The house band was whipping through accomplished versions of blues classics. Then the guitarist said, “OK, let’s give a warm hand for our friend Pinetop Perkins.”

Up hobbles a very old black man, leaning on a cane. And it’s him. Pinetop Perkins… THE Pinetop Perkins. Blues legend. American icon. He takes a seat at an electric piano and begins to play. Then sing. And magic fills the tiny space.

It’s Pinetop Perkins, live and in person. The real deal. On a Wednesday night. In front of 30 people. At a joint with no cover, no minimum, and where beers are $4 a bottle. With a backup band so tight it threatened to peel back the wallpaper. And before the night was over, the band from the bar down the block piled in and soon its members were on stage too, joining in, two drummers sharing one drum kit, two guitarists passing back and forth one Fender Stratocaster. And pretty soon it was 2 a.m. and last call and, Pinetop long retired for the night by now, the combined band was serving up a sizzling version of Voodoo Chile that would have made Jimi smile from the grave. And the young tourists from Denmark were grinning and snapping their photos in front of the band, and from their smiles you understood they appreciated what we natives so often do not — that America, for all its quirks and problems, is a pretty damn amazing place.

And that is why I love Austin, Texas.

Over and out from the Austin airport where it is 5:10 a.m. and I’m about to board a plane home for Philadelphia.

We Now Interrupt This Program for a Public Service Announcement from that Marley Guy…

Saturday, November 15th, 2008

As you can imagine, I was excited to be able to hang out on the movie set during the filming of Marley & Me. The one aspect of shooting that made me slightly uncomfortable was the extreme cuteness of the Labradors drafted into service to play Marley. Even when they were being “bad” they were so damn adorable, it was hard not to sigh and think, “Oh, how I’d love to have one of those in my house.”

So when the American Kennel Club approached me about doing a public service announcement in conjunction with the movie, warning those who might be smitten by these big, energetic animals what they could be getting themselves into, I gladly agreed. The theme of the PSA is responsible dog ownership. I wanted people considering a dog, especially those drawn by the emotional tug of a heartwarming movie, to pause and think twice about whether they are prepared for everything dog ownership entails. Especially bringing home loving but challenging dogs of the Marley variety.

The sad subtext of Marley & Me is that for every wild, hard-to-control animal like Marley who finds a loving, lifelong home, dozens end up being abandoned. If there is a message I hope readers will take away from my book, and the movie too, it is that dogs are not appliances. They are not fashion accessories. They are not commodities to be blithely discarded when they become inconvenient. The PSA is designed to drive home that lesson while still celebrating the great joys of bringing a dog into a family.

We filmed the PSA on a beautiful farm in rural Pennsylvania about an hour from my home. At my side was my own new addition, Woodson the Lab puppy my family adopted from the movie set. The PSA is being offered to television stations across the country to air as the Marley & Me movie prepares to debut on Christmas day. The PSA comes in 60-, 30-, and 15-second versions, and there is a print ad, too that is being made available to print media around the country.

To view the PSA and see still photos of Woodson and me on the set for the PSA, please follow this link:

The American Kennel Club press release announcing the launch of the PSA begins this way:


New York, NY – The American Kennel Club®, in partnership with Twentieth Century Fox and John Grogan, announced today the launch of a new public service announcement (PSA) campaign tied to the upcoming film Marley & Me. The campaign can be viewed at and features 60-, 30- and 15-second television spots and a print PSA designed to remind all dog lovers of the commitment it takes to own a dog.

Responsible dog ownership is something Grogan, the author of the best-selling book on which the film is based, knows better than anyone. Marley & Me recounts his life with his rambunctious Labrador Retriever, who quickly grew from an adorable puppy to 97-pound steamroller. In the PSA Grogan states:

“Puppies…they’re so cute. Until they’re not. Then they become 100 pounds of thundering, hairy, yelping, jumping, drooling, go-exactly-where-you-don’t-want-them-to-go… commitment. In a word: Marley.

I’m John Grogan. I was Marley’s patient and loving owner for 13 years. I know there is nothing like the joys and rewards of pet ownership but… someone’s got to be the responsible one… most likely you. “

The PSAs, part of the AKC’s longstanding public education campaign, remind potential dog owners that dogs are a big responsibility and that the decision to buy a puppy should not be taken lightly.

“Unlike other films and aspects of popular culture that idealize dogs, we think Marley & Me depicts a more balanced view of dog ownership and we want to underscore that further through this campaign,” said Daisy Okas, AKC’s Assistant Vice President of Communications. “Dogs bring us love, affection, comfort, security and unrivaled devotion despite our flaws, but there is a lot that is required of us in return for the wonderful privilege of having a dog. We applaud Fox and John Grogan for providing the public with an entertaining story that drives this message home to all animal lovers.”

Coming Home Again

Tuesday, November 11th, 2008

My book-tour travels brought me back to my hometown of Detroit last week, and it felt good to be back. I left Michigan in 1985, and except for once-a-year family visits have not returned. Can’t say I’ve missed it. Poor Michigan has been down on its luck for a while now. The auto industry is essentially the only game in town, and it’s been in a seemingly ever-downward spiral. When I arrived at Detroit Metro Airport on Election Day eve, the first headline I spotted wasn’t about Obama’s historic sweep but of looming troubles at General Motors and Ford. The word “bankruptcy” seems to come up here in nearly every conversation.
Despite that economic gloom, the sun was shining and the temperatures unseasonably balmy. But best of all, I got to reconnect with a lot of old friends and neighbors I haven’t seen or heard from in years — and in some cases, decades. At my Wednesday night talk and signing at the Borders store in Birmingham, a suburb of Detroit, the audience was peppered with familiar faces from long ago. There was my old Central Michigan housemate, Diane, whom I have not seen or heard from since I left Central in 1979 and who still looks fantastic after all these years. There was my old high school buddy Mark, who had disappeared off my radar even before that. My old neighbor Tim Smith showed up with his whole family. So did one of my very best friends from my college years, Jeannie Crampton, whose family still owns and operates the cherry farm near Traverse City where one summer I learned how to pick fruit — but unfortunately failed to heed her father’s warnings about not eating too much of what I picked.

More than a few of the old faces belonged to people who make appearances in my book. Much of The Longest Trip Home takes place in metro Detroit, and my Birmingham signing was just a short drive from my childhood neighborhood in Orchard Lake and the haunts of my youth. In the crowd was Chris (Shotwell) Simpson, the high school English teacher who got me journaling and on the road to first-person narrative writing. And my freshman “Math for Dummies” teacher, Bob Stark, who was the only teacher in my entire education able to unlock the mysteries of algebra for me. I had not seen or heard from Mr. Stark since I left Brother Rice Catholic High after my freshman year in 1972, but I instantly recognized him. He was grayer and slighly more weathered, but the same, good guy. He told me he keeps in touch with Brother McKenna, the stern freshman composition teacher who taught me the discipline of writing, and Bob said he’d say hello to him for me. In the book, I credit Brother McKenna for instilling in me the notion that sloppy writing — sloppy anything, really — just is not acceptable. Wow, what a trip down memory lane.

But one of the funniest moments came while people were queuing up to have me sign their books. In the line I spotted a familiar face from my childhood: the next-door neighbor boy. Yes, that one. The son of my first crush, Mrs. Selahowski, who provided my earliest ideal of feminine beauty. In Chapter 2 of The Longest Trip Home, I write about my second-grade fascination with the sunbathing Mrs. Selahowski and how it morphed — with the aid of my toy telescope — into an early, pre-pubescent form of boyhood lust. It was a lust for which I was convinced I was hell-bound. A lust that prompted me to lie bald-faced to the priest in my first confession.

Now here was her son, Peter, standing with a big grin on his face. We said hello, and then he handed me his cellphone. On the other end…. yes, his mom. “Hello, Johnny,” she said in a now-frail voice. “I read your book and it was beautiful. But I must say I was shocked to learn what you were up to with that telescope. I had no idea.”
From somewhere in the line, I heard someone say, “Look! He’s blushing!”
Oh God, kill me now. On the one hand, the exchange was embarrassing. On the other, I thought, there are worst things than to remind a woman in her sunset years of the beauty of her prime.
As it turned out, a columnist for the Detroit Free Press was standing in the line and the next morning she called me at my hotel to ask me about the experience. A few days later, this is what Marney Rich Keenan wrote….

John Grogan’s ‘Longest Trip’ turns toward home

John Grogan, the best selling author of “Marley & Me” (William Morrow, $21.95), got a little bit more than he bargained for at book signing at Borders in Birmingham this past week.
Promoting his most recent book, “The Longest Trip Home” (William Morrow, 2008), Grogan, who was raised in West Bloomfield Township, was not surprised to see a lot of old friends, former classmates and neighbors.
Surely the book, which is about his boyhood rebellion growing up in a terribly devout Catholic family (two uncles were priests) during the 1960s and ’70s, was sure to bring out the neighborhood to see their old friend and now famous author.
Many of them saw themselves in the familiar stories of chugging the sacramental wine as an altar boy, or remembered their long-haired radical days with Grogan when he started an underground student newspaper.
Standing in the book-signing line, fans exchanged their ties to Grogan. “Are you a fellow refugee? What year?” was a common refrain. The Grogan clan — three boys, one girl — all attended Our Lady of Refuge in Orchard Lake. And at least one of the members of “Secret Society of Smokers, Swearers and Sacramental Wine Swiggers” was also at the reading, now some 40 years older with radical teenagers of their own.
But the surprise came when a former next door neighbor walked up to have his book signed and handed Grogan his cell phone. “Could you just say hi?” the man coaxed.
Quizically, Grogan obliged.
“Hello?” he said, timidly. “Oh my God! Mrs. Selahowski? …Oh, my! Yes, yes. I’m fine! And you? You have read it? Uh-huh. Well, you will recall, I was only 7 at the time.”
Mrs. Selahowski, now in her 80s and living in Florida, is indeed a celebrated subject in the book as the object of one of Johnny Grogan’s first most egregious mortal sins. Grogan writes: “By the time second grade had rolled around I had clearly moved into the sinful land of lust. I was coveting my neighbor’s wife.”
Evidently, the next-door neighbor liked to tan herself in her backyard stretched out on a chaise lounge “in a tiny two-piece bathing suit, her blond hair piled loosely atop her head, rhinestone-encrusted sunglasses shading her eyes, baby oil slathered over her golden body.”
While lying on her stomach, she would often unfasten her bathing suit top. And little Johnny Grogan, watching from his second-story bedroom window, would pray fervently for the lawn sprinklers to come on and shock her onto her feet. “One false move and her bosom — I pronounced the word ba-zooms — would be fully exposed,” he wrote.
For his birthday that year, Grogan requested a telescope. “Our little Galileo,” he heard his mom tell his dad.
From the first French kiss to a girl with so braces: It was a little like French kissing with a power tool … I spent half the time marveling at my amazing luck and the other half trying to prevent serious injury,” to the attempt to smuggle contraband past his father, Grogan writes with his trademark ease of wit and humor.
But the book turns poignant and thus a teaching tool for all us who has ever loved our parents but not their religion and felt the deep pain of their disappointment.
After graduating from Central Michigan University and coming into his own, it became painfully evident that shedding the Catholicism of Grogan’s youth deeply wounded his parents.
At age 30, when he announced he was moving in with his girlfriend (whom his parents loved and whom he later married), they were crushed. “You’ll be living in a state of sin,” his father raged. “Is that what you want? To live with the pall of sin over you?”
After marriage and children, a fateful call from his aging father brings Grogan home again and he writes eloquently of reconciliation, grace and the enduring power of family itself.
Just like “Marley and Me” was more than just a story about an incorrigible Labrador retriever, so too, “The Longest Trip Home” is so much more than a story about a strict religious upbringing. Says Grogan: “It’s about how family love and openness of heart can and will triumph over differences.”

That’s it for now. I’m writing this from a hotel in Philadelphia’s Old City where I’m looking out at Independence Hall. It’s great to be back in my hometown where so many readers first got to know me as a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. I’m finishing up a series of radio interviews, and soon I will be home again.

Hitting the Bestseller List

Monday, November 3rd, 2008

Last week I stepped off a plane that had just brought me from Denver to Philadelphia International Airport, ending the first leg of my book tour, and when I powered up my cell phone, the message signal was glowing. On the other end were the voices of my William Morrow editor Mauro DiPreta and publisher Lisa Gallagher, and they had some very good news for me. “Number nine, my friend!” Mauro said in the message. “Number nine!” At first I thought he was reciting the lyrics to that old Beatles song (Turn me on, Deadman!), but then I figured it out. In its first week of publication, my new memoir The Longest Trip Home sold enough copies to land at #9 on The New York Times hardcover nonfiction bestseller list. Yea! What made the news especially sweet was the fact that it was only a partial week of sales for the book — which came out on a Tuesday, meaning it was available for five of the seven days.

No matter what any author may tell you about not caring about the bestseller list, being above such crass, competitive number counting, don’t believe him. Every author hopes and prays for one of the 15 coveted spots, and I’m no exception. Back in October 2005, Marley & Me surprised all of us when it debuted at #10 on the Times’ nonfiction bestseller list. It went on to spend the next 76 weeks there, a phenomenon I believe is safe to categorize as “once in a lifetime.” But I’m thrilled to see The Longest Trip off to a good start in its own right. Thanks to everyone who picked up a copy and helped push me onto the list. I consider every week there a gift, and I take nothing for granted. But for this week at least, it feels sweet indeed. [Because of a printing delay, the list will not appear until the Sunday, Nov. 9 edition of The Times, but I pasted the online link below.]

I also learned that The Longest Trip Home in its first week landed at #11 on the Publisher’s Weekly bestseller list, and at #14 on the Wall Street Journal’s bestseller list. Those lists are a little tougher because they include all nonfiction, while the Times gives advice and self-help books their own list. As I drove home from the airport, my agent Laurie Abkemeier — whom I call Super Agent 007 because she does so much seemingly all at once — called to congratulate me and urged me to celebrate heartily. After 10 days on the road, sleeping in different hotels every night and eating all my meals out, what sounded best was to simply get home, pull on my comfiest sweatshirt and jeans, warm up some leftovers, open a beer and just put my feet up and scratch the dogs behind the ears.

Click here to see the New York Times bestseller list.

Click here to see the Publishers Weekly bestseller list.

Click here to see the Wall Street Journal bestseller list.