There is indeed a sailboat on the dust jacket of John
Grogan’s LIFE IS LIKE A SAILBOAT. But look closely,
dear reader, and you will note that the sailboat, far from battling
ocean waves, is floating placidly in a domestic bathtub. That sets
former Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Grogan firmly in
his proper context.
Grogan spent four years or so trolling the lanes and malls of
suburban Philadelphia for newspaper columns. This book assembles 84
of them in no particular order. No dates of publication are
provided, and there seems to be no overarching theme to unify them.
They are just there, for the reader to sample at his leisure. This
is a bag of journalistic potato chips, and it is indeed hard to
resist the temptation to munch on “just one more”
before returning to the real world.
Grogan levels his lance at some easy targets: highway litterers,
telemarketers, racist bigots, cigarette smoke, television ads, gun
violence. He also likes to let his readers write pieces for him by
simply quoting what they have said on some life-and-death issue
like the misbehavior of pet dogs. And he is always careful to
identify which Philadelphia suburb is home to whomever he quotes.
It is not, however, necessary to be familiar with the geography of
Great Philly to enjoy these pieces. Their themes are common to
suburbia from coast to coast; all the reader needs do is substitute
the name of some similar town from his own area and the fit is
pretty much perfect.
Grogan is a graceful writer. He gets his points across crisply
and effectively within the confines of the small newspaper space
allotted to him (as one who himself practiced that elusive art for
28 years, I know how difficult it can be. Wasn’t it Pascal
who once apologized to someone for having written such a long
letter “because I did not have time to write you a short
My personal favorite among those 84 potato chips is the one
about the five-year-old in South Philadelphia who wrote a Christmas
letter to Santa, addressed it to the North Pole and stuck on a few
Christmasy stickers in lieu of a stamp --- only to have the letter
returned after the holiday as undeliverable for insufficient
postage. Grogan, dogged investigative reporter that he is, asked
someone at the post office for an explanation. The official felt
that no Scrooge-ish postal employee was at fault, blaming instead a
machine that automatically fingered the unstamped missive and
ordered it returned to sender. The youngster’s mistake was
putting a return address on his letter. That malevolent machine,
Grogan is happy to report, has not shaken the youngster’s
faith in Santa.
Grogan likes to visit odd but picturesque places, an old
cemetery for example, and to seek out unusual characters who do
interesting things like handcrafting furniture from undried wood.
He touches glancingly on a few controversial topics, writing with
sympathy, for example, about two gay men who want to marry. A
couple of warm and fizzy columns are devoted to random acts of
kindness experienced by his readers. Grogan is not afraid to
express his own views, but he never lapses into self-important
bombast or froth-at-the-mouth rage.
The big question in a reader’s mind, of course, is: Just
how is life like a sailboat? This idea comes in
Grogan’s folksy account of a youthful water outing with his
father, who told him that there were lessons to be learned from
their little expedition: Keep your hand on the tiller, small
adjustments are needed to stay on course. Pick a clear destination
and stick to it. Watch for submerged hazards. Anticipate the winds
of change before they blow.
Grogan does not record any wisdom from his father about
launching your sailboat in the family bathtub. That’s one
sure way to avoid submerged hazards and sudden shifts in the
LIFE IS LIKE A SAILBOAT is a quick, enjoyable read.
Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on December 30, 2010
Life Is Like a Sailboat: Selected Writings On Life & Living From