In 'Vacationland,' John Hodgman Tells The Funny Story Of His Life
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Remember John Hodgman, "Daily Show" expert on just about everything, co-star of the Apple Mac commercial campaign in which he played the clunky PC, cataloger of nonsensical histories in the three-book series called "The Areas Of My Expertise"? Well, John Hodgman is back with a memoir called "Vacationland," which, as the promotional text on the book says, is about Hodgman's wandering in the metaphorical wilderness of his 40s, most of which is done in western Massachusetts and on the coast of Maine.
John Hodgman, it's good to have you back.
JOHN HODGMAN: It's wonderful to be back. Thank you.
SIEGEL: Let's talk about this different genre for you. It's not about prophecies of global doom foretold by the Mayan calendar. It doesn't include 700 hobo nicknames, as we've discussed in the past. It's a very funny book about your life, most of it true, even.
SIEGEL: Why this new approach to writing?
HODGMAN: The truth was that after writing 1,000 pages of fake facts, I was tired of it. And frankly everyone's doing it now. So I needed to forge a new path. And what I was left with was the mere awful truth of my life, which is that I am a strange, white, male monster with bad facial hair staring down what I hope is the second half of my life, much of which takes place in the painful beaches of coastal Maine and New England.
SIEGEL: Yeah. Speaking of facial hair, just to give a sense of the granular scope of your work here, you write about your mustache. I wonder if you could just read the passage about growing this mustache.
HODGMAN: Of course. (Reading) I grew my mustache for the same reason all of your weird dads grew their mustaches. It's an evolutionary signal that says, I'm all done. A mustache sends a visual message to the mating population of Earth that says, no, thank you, I have procreated. My DNA is out in the world. I have no evolutionary purpose. I no longer deserve physical affection. Instead, it is time for me to turn away from sex and towards new pursuits, the classic weird dad hobbies such as puns, learning trivia about bridges and world wars and dreaming about societal collapse and global apocalypse.
SIEGEL: (Reading) It's the last phase you've already gone through, in fact.
HODGMAN: Yes, indeed, yes.
SIEGEL: This book isn't really so much about life where you spend most of it, which is Brooklyn, isn't it? It's about the two country homes you own, one in western Massachusetts, the other in Maine.
HODGMAN: Yes. So I live in Brooklyn, N.Y., but the book follows me as wandering uncomfortably through three wildernesses - the rural hills of western Massachusetts where I spent a lot of my youth and did a lot of my growing up and the painful beaches of coastal Maine where I've been informed by my wife I will eventually accept my death and the metaphoric haunted forest of middle age that connects those two things.
SIEGEL: I believe it's in Massachusetts where you reflect on the situation of the family's pet dwarf hamster, Flurry...
SIEGEL: ...And Flurry's less-fortunate, undomesticated kinsmen outside the house. It's an interesting moment.
HODGMAN: Well, yeah. So my mom passed away in the year 2000, and suddenly my wife and I had a small house in the country of rural western Massachusetts. And having lived in New York our whole lives, you know, New York trains you to be an adolescent until you die - right? - because you never have to learn to drive.
HODGMAN: Even if you own your own home, it's an apartment - right? - which is just a glorified dorm room. If something goes wrong in your house, you don't have to fix it. You call some surrogate dad to come and do it for you.
SIEGEL: Call the super, yeah.
HODGMAN: Exactly. And so we grew up a lot in this house, you know, learning things like, you know, if you have a home that is heated by propane, the propane does not arrive by magic. You actually have to call a man to come and bring you the propane. And if you don't call him, he doesn't come. And it was in the home that I confronted one of the great moral paradoxes of caring for a beloved pet dwarf hamster at the end of its life cycle. And Robert, I don't know if you've ever had a dwarf hamster, but if you ever did, you know that its life cycle begins to end a week after you bring it home from the pet store...
SIEGEL: (Laughter) I see.
HODGMAN: ...And give it to your young son. That is when it stops eating and starts becoming a ragged, half-filled hacky sack of sad bones.
SIEGEL: (Laughter) Yeah.
HODGMAN: And you're trying to keep this thing alive with some medicine that a con man veterinarian sold you for $500 at the precise moment that through the kitchen door, in the garage, you are literally murdering dozens and dozens of field mice a week with traps and poisons. And they're the same animal.
HODGMAN: You could take one and look at him next to the other. You would say, what is the difference? Why have I chosen to designate this one with a name, Flurry, as you pointed out? And even Flurry seemed to understand. Flurry was saying to me, that's a lot of cognitive dissonance. Just let me die. I'm like, no, Flurry, you're going to make it, pal. Now, let me go out into the garage and find how many of your cousins' heads I've smashed with traps.
SIEGEL: You write about Maine with great ambivalence.
HODGMAN: Yes. I named the book "Vacationland," which is of course something of a cruel joke because you would never go swimming in Maine 'cause the water is very cold and made of hate, and it wants to kill you. Maine is a place of rugged and harsh beauty, and it reminds you that the universe is large. You are small, and none of it cares whether you are here or not. And as you start to move into the second half of your life, Maine is a place where you - if you're morbidly inclined, it has a lot to offer you.
SIEGEL: (Laughter) And do you feel that in Maine, you can - you get a sense of your mortality in Maine, is what you're saying.
HODGMAN: Yeah. It's there to confirm your mortality.
SIEGEL: Now, tell me, John Hodgman, as a - someone in his mustachioed 40s and father of at least one child who's reached adolescence - yes?
HODGMAN: Yes, that's true. My wife and I have two human children, one of whom is 15, the other of whom is 12. And not only do I have a moustache now, but I also have a beard. I'm sure your listeners can hear the horror of my beard through their radios. It is so untelegenic; it is anti-radiogenic as well.
SIEGEL: Do you find yourself more content at this stage of your life than during your 20s or 30s?
HODGMAN: That's a very interesting question. I mean, on a gut level, it surprises me to say that the answer is yes. I think that we spend our 20s wondering what the future holds. We are worried we may not be talented, skilled, lucky or interesting enough to get there, and so we spend a lot of time telling ourselves stories about how interesting we are, often by buying things that make us feel interesting or borrowing gestures or poses. And then in our 30s, once the 20s have evaporated, we spend a lot of time telling our stories that we're still in our 20s; we're still a fighter; we're still relevant.
Once you're past 40 - and now I'm into my mid-40s - a lot of that anxiety drifts away because you're no longer bothering to try. You have grown the beard that you can grow, metaphorically speaking. And in my case, it looks awful, but that is who I am. And I no longer worry about what is next to come. I have a lot of advantages because I went on television for a little while. I'm a very - I bill this as the white privilege mortality comedy of John Hodgman because I believe in truth in advertising.
HODGMAN: I do...
HODGMAN: I do have a lot of privilege. I check my privilege every day. And at the end of the day when I go back to the privilege check to pick it up again, I hand them the ticket. Sometimes I forget the ticket, and they're like, don't worry about it. We know you. That's how privileged I am.
SIEGEL: John Hodgman, author most recently of "Vacationland: True Stories From Painful Beaches," thanks for talking with us once again.
HODGMAN: It is my pleasure as always. Thank you.
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