Archive for May, 2009

Mom turns 93

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009

Many of you who have read my memoir, The Longest Trip Home, have told me you feel as though you personally know and love my family. I always like to hear that. My mother, Ruth, especially seems to have won her way into many readers’ hearts. With her break-the-mold combination of comical antics, motherly worry, fulsome love, and moral certitude, she in a way was a sort of Everymom. The kind who dedicated her life to keeping her children happy and healthy, safe and secure, and on the right track–not just as kids, but as adults, as well. Many of you have told me she reminded you a lot of your own mothers. I always take that as a compliment, and I know she would, too.

Well, Mom had a birthday recently. Frail now but still in good spirits and with her sense of humor intact, Mom celebrated turning ninety-three, and I was blessed to be able to be there to help. The day before, I was in Findlay, Ohio, about 90 minutes south of Detroit, to give a talk. (Thank you, Findlayans, for the warm reception!) I tagged on an extra day to make a sidetrip to visit my siblings Mike and Marijo, who remain in the area, and of course, Mom, who lives in a nursing home on a lake about 15 minutes from where I grew up.

I wanted to give my mother something memorable as a gift, but at her age there are not many things she needs or wants. Candy is always a big hit but the doctor discourages too much of that. Flowers provide a pick-me-up, but a week later they are spent. What I decided to give her was a blow-up of a photograph my father, who was quite a talented amateur photographer, took back in 1959, when I was 2. It’s a shot I found at the bottom of a pile of family photos when I was researching The Longest Trip Home, and which appears inside the book. In soft black-and-white tones, it shows Marijo, Mike, Tim and me sitting on the floor of our living room not long after moving into our house in Harbor Hills, the neighborhood that plays such a big part in my memoir. I framed the photo and carried it in my luggage from Pennsylvania. It had been decades since Mom had seen this image, and I wasn’t sure how she would react to it. For several years now, Mom’s memory has been failing, and sometimes she cannot remember whether she ate lunch, let alone what she ate. I wondered if she would even recognize the four young faces staring out of the photo at her, faces that now belonged to middle-aged adults with graying hair and a few wrinkles of their own.

Mike, Marijo, her partner Kent, and I took Mom to one of her favorite restaurants, Weber’s in Ann Arbor, where she grew up. We were all pleased to see how well she ate. Wolfed down her whitefish and finished all her vegetables. Good girl, Ruthie! She even had a sip of my beer. After dessert, we presented her with gifts. I placed the photo in front of her upside down, then watched her face as I turned it over. Instantly, she broke into a giant warm smile. “My four little kittens,” she murmured, using the same expression she favored so long ago. Mom sat there for the longest time, beaming as she studied the image. I suppose for her it was the same as for me: a bittersweet reminder, mostly happy but tinged with the sadness of loss, of all that had come before, all that we had shared — the laughter, the joy, the struggles — and all that had faded into the realm of memory.

“Happy birthday, Ruthie,” I said and gave her a big smooch on the cheek. Then it was time for good byes and the trip to the airport. Another year, another milestone. Despite time and distance, family remains.

A Memorable Opening Line

Sunday, May 17th, 2009

Recently my hometown newspaper, The Morning Call of Allentown, asked me about my reading habits for a new feature the paper is kicking off. The reporter wanted to know what book I had just finished (“The Hour I First Believed” by Wally Lamb), what I was currently reading (“Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life” by Barbara Kingsolver), my all-time favorite book (“Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger), the book that first got me hooked on reading (“Treasure Island” by Robert Louis Stevenson in fourth grade), and when I do most of my reading (on airplanes and in bed before turning off the light for the night). But one question stumped me: “What is the most memorable opening line from a book?” I thought and I thought and couldn’t quite come up with anything. I went to my bookshelves and pulled down old favorites… Hemingway, John Irving, Frank McCourt, Steinbeck, even Chaucer. Nothing was grabbing me. I thought about some of the classic opening lines of literature, such as “Call me Ishmael” in Melville’s Moby Dick. But I couldn’t really list that with a straight face because, truth be told, that opening line was just about as far into the notoriously dense novel as I got when it was assigned to me in high school.

Flash forward to a recent weekend in San Francisco. I was in town to give a talk at a fundraiser event to benefit The Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Koret School of Veterinary Medicine. I arrived the night before, which gave me most of Saturday to wander around San Francisco, my favorite city in all North America (closely followed by Montreal). The weather was cool and rainy (big surprise), but I wasn’t going to let that hold me hostage in my hotel room. I wandered around Union Square, up Geary Street, through the Financial District, into China Town, and beyond that to the corner of Columbus and Broadway where I rediscovered one of the country’s great — and one of my favorite — bookstores, City Lights. A great place to while away a rain-soaked afternoon. I shook off my raincoat, folded my umbrella and headed inside. On the second floor I found an entire wall dedicated to the Beat Generation writers. That only made sense. City Lights, founded by Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti was the spiritual home of the Beat movement.

The first cover my eyes fell upon was Howl, the controversial 1956 book-length poem by Allen Ginsburg. I had read an excerpt for a poetry survey class in college and remembered it being provocative. I pulled it off the shelf, grabbed a rocking chair, and started to read. I recognized the opening lines right away and remembered how they had swept over me, the crazy, inexplicable power of those raw words, when I first read them thirty years ago. I guess that constitutes memorable.

Howl opens:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix;
Angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection
to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.

So there you have it. An opening line worth remembering, even if it required a cross-country flight and a trudge through the rain-slick streets of San Francisco for me to find it again.

Fact V. Fiction about My Former Column

Tuesday, May 5th, 2009

Earlier today I received an email at from a man who enjoyed the Marley & Me movie but has not yet read the book. He hit upon a misperception left by the movie that I think now is as good a time as any to correct. Writes the emailer Baileysdad: “In the movie it was portrayed that a lot of your columns in Florida were about Marley. I think with the movie out, it might be nice to put those columns in book form.”

Yes, the movie does give that impression, but it is not accurate. It is one of the many small fictions the scriptwriters took (with my knowledge and consent) to better help pack my nearly 300-page book into a two-hour movie. In the movie version, my character, played by Owen Wilson, is a somewhat hapless journalist relegated to covering methane leaks at the local garbage dump and not having much luck making a mark journalistically. Then he is talked into writing a column (another fiction: reporters kill to get a shot at their own column, and indeed I competed against several other candidates to get mine). Grogan is still not quite finding his voice as a columnist until …. yes, Hollywood drumroll… he starts writing columns about his crazy dog Marley. The columns are a huge hit with readers and Grogan more or less makes Marley a regular subject of his column. See how the world’s worst dog makes the man?

That’s the film version. In real life, I was a senior writer on my paper’s enterprise team, writing long take-outs for the Sunday front page. Then I tried out for and received the position of metro columnist. As a metropolitan columnist, the great majority of my columns played off the news. One day I might be at a murder scene, the next at a tax hearing, the day after that in a classroom or out in the Everglades. Into this mix I sprinkled personal essays based on experiences in my own life. And of those personal essays, a handful were about about life with Marley. The total sum of Marley columns from my ten years as a columnist, both in Florida and Philadelphia, is about a dozen. Looking back on it, that was about the right mix. There are hardly enough Marley columns to fill a pamphlet, let alone a book.

And that leads me to a related topic, which isn’t very pleasant for me. My former newspaper, the (once great but of late teetering on the edge of bankruptcy) Philadelphia Inquirer has published two unauthorized collections of my columns I wrote while employed there. They published them without my consent or involvement or even advanced knowledge. I had no say in the selection or the cover or title, and receive no compensation. Despite that, the appearance to the casual shopper in any bookstore is, “Oh, look, John Grogan has a new book out.” After all, my name and the words “author of the bestseller Marley & Me” are prominent on the covers. It’s a reasonable assumption. At every book signing I do, some poor soul asks me to sign one of these. I regretfully have to tell him or her that I cannot sign the books because they are not mine. (The Inquirer owns the copyright as it does with all staff-generated work). I feel bad having to disappoint someone who just plunked down their hard-earned cash, but I just can’t endorse this cynical repurposing of my earlier work. In my opinion, the actions of the Inquirer and Vanguard Press in publishing these two collections is not only disrespectful and cheesy, but pitiful — a desperate attempt by a once-proud but now failing enterprise to glom on to a former employee’s success. Who knows, maybe next the Inquirer and Vanguard Press will want to publish my collected dry-cleaning bills.

It’s a free country, and I won’t tell you what to buy. But if you see a book with my name on the front and the words “selected writings from The Philadelphia Inquirer,” you’ll know you’ve arrived in the land of glom. And if you have any doubts, turn the book over and read the very, very fine type on the back cover.

That’s it for now. Over and out… john