John Grogan - The Longest Trip Home


Coming Home Again

Tuesday, November 11, 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.

posted by John Grogan at 7:19 AM


Blogger Keep looking UP said...

Thank you for your awesome words...I can't wait to purchase your new book...I loved 'Marley & Me'.
You've been blessed with an incredible way with words.

1:02 PM  
Blogger Mark + Audrey Lestan said...

Hi John,

Troy High School class of 1998. Glad to see you making your rounds in Michigan. Do it as quick as you can or you will get sucked under by the overwhelming economic doom plaguing the state.

But we are making due. Can't wait to read the new book. Just got done reading Marley & Me for the third time as I am refreshing my brain for the movie release. Book is still as good, funny, and heartwarming as the first time I read it.

Well done on all of your success. Are you bring the family back again this Christmas to head up north to cut your tree down? See you at Krauss' if you are!

Have a great holiday season. You deserve it.

5:47 AM  
Blogger Bob Abooey said...

Just finished your newest book, Great job. Really enjoyed it.

6:44 AM  
Blogger Sandra Wood said...

I loved your book Marley and me. I too have a 9 year old yellow lab named Marley. As I write she is in the hospital with an IV inserted due to her ailing health from renal failure. Your book will always be an inspiration to me as it reminds me so much of life with "my" Marley. Keep up the great work.

Sandra Wood

9:52 AM  
Blogger Nicole said...

I KNOW Orchard Lake is a tiny part of West Bloomfield- because I live here in it- back with my mom and step-dad and two golden retrievers! I recently graduated with an English/Journalism degree from MSU- I thought I wanted to teach. I was SO wrong. I know I want to write- what I want to write, I have no idea YET. I LOVE your books and I can't believe I missed your Birmingham visit (::insert vulgar word here::) Next time, promise!

And off to Harbor Springs, MI this weekend- I think you miss it more than you say! I'll bring back some of that fresh up north air!


4:56 PM  
Blogger Jociane said...

hi, o love Marley and Me!
soory, but i dont know speak inglish.
eu amei o seu livro "Marley e eu" foi o meu livro que li em toda a minha vida, jamais vou esquecer a historia do Marley, enquanto eu lia o livro, eu dava risadas altas das armaçoes do Marley, e nos capitulos em que ele começou a ficar doente, devo confessar que eu chorei, mas eu chorei muito e imaginei a dor que voces sentiram, porque eu a senti, mesmo já tendo passado muito tempo em que Maley se foi, doeu em meu coração.
O Marley foi incrivel, e eu amo ele!
fiquei feliz em saber que breve saira aqui no Brasil o filme, tenho certeza que ficarei muito emocionada em assitir.

E quem dera se os cachorros, tivessem o mesmo tempo de vida que os seres humanos.

Parabens, por ter sido um dono que demostrou em cada capitulo do livro, um amor incondicional ao Marley.

Ainda quero ter um labrador e cuida-lo como voce cuidou do Marley
Eu amooooooo o MaRley.
um abraço.

Cascavel - Pr / Brasil.

7:20 AM  
Blogger Julett said...

After attending your lecture at Baylor last night, came home and read your book about coming home.
Was disappointed to hear you ridicule the faith of your parents.
When I read closely to see what it was about the teachings of the Catholic Church that turned you off - could not find them. All I read was your disparaging remarks about their "old-fashioned" faith that they relied on so heavily. Is their self-righteousness enought to drive you away from the Church? What about the Church drove you away? I am just curious.
I can relate to your being turned off by the self-righteous attitude (I have a brother and sister who have that same attitude of looking down their noses at anyone who practices ourside what they consider to be the proper Catholic/Christian way of living).
But their narrow vision has not driven me away from a Church that mourishes and sustains my relationship with God. I am glad to read that you are trying to bring your children up with good morals and ethics - but I am wondering about your own moral ethics when you speak of promiscuous sexual behavior as though that should be considered a proper way to live - that your parents were "wrong" to view this as immoral. What message is this going to send young people of today. Do you still think it is alright (morally, ethically) as an adult to be promiscuous and sleep around? You act as though lying to your parents about "sleeping around" is the greater sin?
I do hope you have a very loving wife and family life. Somehow there seems to be a tone of "something missing" in your life. May you be blessed by the loving Father who is always ready to be with us - if we but seek him out.

4:02 PM  
Blogger Jets said...

Hi John,

My name is Bridgette Wagner (Bitzer was my maiden name). Just like you I grew up in West Bloomfield... right off of Pine Lake. My grandmother was your neighbor 2 doors down... Virginia Templeton. My mother, Deborah happened to pick up "Marley and Me" from the store and was shocked to see your name and your face on the back flap! Just like you, I suffered through the agony of Our Lady of Refuge school, although for me I was there in the early 90's (even though nuns weren't hitting us with rulers... the emotional abuse was STILL just as bad). I don't remember much about your family but I do remember your father attending every service I ever went to at Our Lady of Refuge Church growing up. I'm not even sure I could return to that place at this point.

I have always been an aspiring writer, and someday hope to pursue my goals further. Right now I am a young mother to two great kids, Gavin (4) and Adeline (2), who keep me quite busy. We relocated to North Carolina about 2 years ago and haven't looked back! I don't miss the frigid cold that lasts for months and months there. I also love one of your fav spots, West Palm Beach, Florida, where my father, uncle, and other family live. It's my fav vacation spot! If it weren't for the high crime rates/drug use in that area I'd consider moving there myself. For now we are happy living in the family-friendly town of Wilmington... a nice balance between Michigan and Florida.

Well I hope you read this in between all of your busy messages. Congrats to you on your success -- I am proud to see an old neighbor of my mother's make it on the national bestsellers list. I'll be at the theatres to see "Marley and Me" when it comes out. Take care!

8:42 AM  
Blogger Michelle said...

Hi John,
Loved your new book. I bought it the day it was released and finished it in 4 days. I tried to milk it because I hate to finish books that are well written and captivating. What a trip down memory lane. Good times! It seems like yesterday. How is R.S.? I hope he is doing well and is happy. We were so tight one summer and bought season tickets to Pine Knob together. In that context, your book also conjured up a few disturbing memories that are deep seated in my memory. R.S.'s mother thought I was a naughty little harlot out to corrupt her son. Didn't she know he couldn't be corrupted regardless of any effort to do so? She would yell out from the top of the stairway "I don't want you to hang out with THAT girl!" I think it was because I was blonde & lived at the end of Commerce & Orchard Lk Rd in Keego. Maybe a few other things too...haha! Come to think of it, I could write a book about your neighborhood too since I spent all of my time there! Love that beach! We could compare notes! I have lived in San Diego for 25 years & graduated from San Diego State University. I am a charge nurse in a busy ER & love it! More blood please!! I have a wonderful husband & two wonderful kids...a daughter Cree 16 & a son Rory 19. Their dad used to be rommates with "Tommy's" brother. I'm so pissed that lame West Bloomfield High School has done nothing to put together a 20 or 30 year reunion so your book was just the "reunion" I needed and I thank you for that! Wishing you continued success & happiness. Let me know if you are ever in sunny San Diego.
Michelle (Harbrueger)

4:38 AM  

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