I was born in the Motor City, Detroit, Michigan, on March 20, 1957. My very Catholic parents were hoping for a St. Patrick's Day baby. Then for a St. Joseph's Day baby. I was having no part of it. Instead, I arrived on the first day of spring, the youngest of four. Not long after, our family moved from the city to the sleepy village of Orchard Lake, Michigan. My neighborhood was called Harbor Hills, and it is the setting for much of my new memoir, The Longest Trip Home.
The church was just three doors down -- no coincidence -- and my earliest memories are steeped in the fragrances of devotion: incense and sacramental wine, beeswax and musty pews. I was an altar server and later the office boy at the church rectory, where I earned a dollar an hour answering phones and doorbells.
Like just about every other dad in the neighborhood, my father worked with cars, as an engineer for General Motors. Mom was a full-time mother and housewife, and proud of it. When not cooking big meals or ironing our blue Catholic-school uniform shirts, she worried about our moral fabric and prayed a priestly vocation would be in the future for at least one of us. (Sorry on all counts, Mom.) She had a sharp sense of humor and a wonderful, effortless gift for storytelling, some of which she concedes wore off on me.
I got into writing by default because I was so bad at everything else. Algebra, geometry, French, chemistry, physics -- they all escaped me. But writing, now there was a subject I could have some fun with. By eighth grade I was penning parodies of the nuns, and in high school, besides writing for the school newspaper, I started an underground tabloid, which earned me a celebrated trip to the principal's office. From there it was on to Central Michigan University, where I earned the princely sum of twenty-five cents per column inch writing for the campus newspaper while slugging away at a double major in journalism and English.
My first full-time writing job came immediately upon graduation in 1979 when I was hired as a police reporter for the small and lackluster Herald-Palladium in the Michigan harbor town of St. Joseph. I rode all night with cops, photographed murder victims, picked my way through smoldering house fires and sat over coffee with grieving parents. I also summoned the courage to ask out a willowy and tart-tongued reporter on the staff whose name was Jenny.
In 1985, I won a fellowship into the Kiplinger Mid-Career Program in Public Affairs Reporting at Ohio State University, which would become my ticket out of small-town journalism. After earning my master's degree at OSU, I had the good fortune of landing a second fellowship, this one at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Florida, where I gained a keen appreciation for an aptly named local rum concoction known as The Hurricane. Faced with the prospect of returning to unemployment and freezing temperatures in Michigan, I took a job at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale. Jenny quickly followed, landing a position as a feature writer at The Palm Beach Post. I bumped my way up from a bureau reporter to metropolitan columnist, a job I found suited me better than I ever imagined any job could. Not long after arriving in steamy South Florida, Jenny and I married, bought a little bungalow together a block off the water, and brought home a wildly neurotic Labrador retriever that we named after a certain famous reggae star. At the time I had no idea our loopy, attention-deficit dog would someday provide me the inspiration to fulfill a lifelong dream of writing a book. Nor that that book, Marley & Me, would go on to become an international bestseller with some 5 million copies sold and be made into a motion picture.
But before there was the phenomenon known as Marley, there was a career move, which took me from South Florida to rural eastern Pennsylvania to become editor of Rodale's Organic Gardening magazine. What can I say? I had this crazy dream of making my hobby my job and my job my hobby. It didn't take me long to realize how much I missed daily newspapers and, even more, writing in the first person. A little more than three years later, I jumped back into my beloved newspaper vocation, joining the Philadelphia Inquirer as the paper's three-times-a-week Pennsylvania columnist, where I happily remained for more than four years.
In February 2007, with Marley & Me winding down from 76 weeks on the bestseller list, twenty-three of them at #1, I decided to take a break from daily newspapers to focus full-time on writing my new book, The Longest Trip Home. It is a story very close to my heart because it is about a family very close to my heart — my own. I finished the manuscript in early 2008 just as Fox 2000 Pictures was gearing up to begin filming Marley & Me. Jenny and I were fortunate to be able to spend several days on the movie set, both in Miami and Philadelphia, and we were thrilled to watch the sensitive, funny, and thoughtful way in which Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston portrayed us. I'm not sure I would have thought to pair them as John and Jenny, but as soon as I saw their on-camera chemistry, I knew that producer Gil Netter and director David Frankel had struck gold.
Frankel, being the nice guy that he is, offered to work us into a scene as extras. I won't say what scene, but I will say that it included, in addition to Wilson and Aniston, one of my all-time favorite actresses, a screen legend whom I had a mad crush on for years. Moviegoers will be relieved to hear that I had no spoken lines and was kept safely in the background where I couldn't muck up anything too badly.
As filming wrapped up, the producers presented me with a most amazing gift: one of the puppies that played Marley in the movie. His name is Woodson and, as I write this, he is lying at my feet along with our other Labrador retriever, Gracie. Both are calm and mellow and get along just fine. We all agree they're no Marley — not that there's anything wrong with that.