I’m an absolute sucker for wise father figures.
Sandy Cohen. Johnathan Kent. Doctor Morgenes. Shaun Maguire. Few things hit me harder than moral, compassionate, middle-aged men with wisdom to burn and shithead kids who just won’t listen … until they do.
When I was a teenager my father wasn’t really around to teach me much of anything. You’d think this would explain my predilection* for paternal wisdom, but that theory falls apart pretty quickly when you consider what an unstoppable geyser of folksy insight my step-father was (albeit on matters of fishing, forestry, the Titanic, and surviving the damp winters of Eastern Canada in little more than a t-shirt and sandals). He delivered one of his children by himself as a 19-year-old, and might be the most self-sustaining person I know.
*Sidenote: why does “predilection” sound like such a gross word? More at 11.*
My attraction to gentleman sages like John Steinbeck may, in fact, be me making up for lost time, given how persistently I ignored my step-father’s step-fatherly advice when I was a shithead kid, myself.
I bring this up because not only is John Hodgman’s Vacationland an (admittedly) early contender for my 2018 Book of the Year, it features a wonderful addition to the Annals of Fatherly Wisdom.
In it, Hodgman’s son is being picked on by a group of boys during one of their summer vacations. A less-than-stereotypically-cool person, Hodgman is well aware of bullying and its long lasting effects; and so he has a choice to make: encourage his son to chicken out and avoid the bullies altogether or soldier on in the face of almost certain pain.
He makes the braver, more difficult, choice.
“If you give your child permission to quit, then later they will give themselves permission to quit all kinds of things. We all know those people. And so I asked him to endure. ‘But today,’ I said, ‘I think you should wear this shirt.’ I handed him the t-shirt that he got at his last birthday at the indoor rock climbing gym in Brooklyn. He got it because he was the only one to climb to the top of the wall.
“I said to my son, ‘Before I say what I have to say, I have to ask you: do you mind if I say one swear word in front of you?’ My son said he did not mind, so I went on.
“I said, ‘You have to remember that those three boys know each other very well, but they don’t know you at all. They know nothing about your world or what you can do. Their lives are small. You can tell by how they act. But you live in the largest city in North America. So I think you should wear this shirt, and if they pick on you today, just tell them your name. Tell them your name and that you live in Brooklyn, New York, and you got that shirt from climbing a wall that no one else could, so you don’t need to take any shit from them.”
The moral of the story (besides the actual moral, of course): never underestimate the power of a well-placed curse.
Vacationland–a semi-scattered memoir of mid-life epiphanies–is a humbling, insightful, hilarious, and heart-warming collection from a wealthy, straight, white man who has come to realize that not everything revolves around him. In fact, almost nothing does.
For his entire life, John Hodgman has read, watched, and listened to stories about men largely like him being heroes. But then, in his 40’s, he considers (for the first time) that he is going to die. Not only does the world not revolve around him, it will inexplicably end for him at some point, and the rest of us will simply go on without him.
The world doesn’t need John Hodgman, and newsflash, it doesn’t need either of us. As scary as that might sound, it’s actually a really, really good thing.
What follows in Vacationland is a series of stories from Hodgman’s life. Most of it concerns the vacations he takes with his family in western Massachusetts and Maine, but it occasionally hearkens back to his time as a privileged only child.
“All only children have bunk beds, obviously. The only child sleeps on the top bunk to at once embody his surfeit of resources and literalize his loneliness, the empty, sibling-less space that follows them, even to unconsciousness.”
It’s a hard book to recommend. Not because of its quality (which is extremely high), but because of its content. There isn’t an epic quest, or even a general thrust. It’s meandering, it’s at times trivial, but it’s somehow profoundly moving in its realness.
Hodgman is hysterical, in a quiet, sardonic, dead pan kind of way (especially on the audiobook, which I completed twice in just 10 days; I assure you it’s the best way to experience this book). He’s like your brilliantly quirky uncle imparting little nuggets of wisdom.
He talks about privilege, family, fear, and perhaps more than anything, parenthood (both as a father and as a son).
In my favorite passage, Hodgman talks about a time when he did something stupid and hurt himself in university.
“This is the first time my actions had ever made my parents cry.
I listened to them crying on the cross-campus payphone. After my fall, I knew they would get the ambulance bill so I called to give them a heads up. I could have died, they pointed out. But I hadn’t.
‘What did we do wrong?’ my father asked, slicing me in half.
‘Nothing,’ I said.
It was a dumb question. How could they have prevented me from climbing those stairs? If anything, it was their support and love that gave me the courage to climb them, to chase weird adventure and come back with stories.
‘You’ve never done anything wrong, you’ve done everything right.’
I was crying now, too, because I knew I had not just fallen down the stairs, but I had fallen away from them, in some way forever, and I knew that it was inevitable, and sad, and somehow right.”
Like many of my heroes, Hodgman takes a shot at manhood, its expectations and taboos, the strict set of rules that is slowly going away: that we’re all supposed to be tough, and proud, and unwavering pillars of strength (in every possible connotation).
“All men have to grow a beard at some point. Because they wonder who is the secret man that lives inside of them. Who will they meet in the mirror if they stop shaving, and they wonder if that beard man is better than them. If that elder sage or fantasy wizard or feral mountain man will be wiser than they are, and when they are lost, if that dude will light up his staff and guide them through the dwarven mines and out of the wilderness.
“Based on the overall effect of my beard, the secret man inside of me it turns out is the part-time book keeper for the Church of Satan. I look like the guy who goes in there every other Monday and complains to the High Magus that they’re spending too much money on red candles.”
Vacationland took me completely off guard. I was a fan of Hodgman from his work on The Daily Show and his legendary series of Apple commercials, but he kind of floored me here.
This was hands down my favorite audiobook I’ve listened to, and it’s not even close. He is the perfect narrator: measured, gentle, hilarious, and best of all, it never feels like he’s reading to you. Hodgman is simply telling you these stories, and it is absolutely wonderful.
Vacationland is simply 5+ hours with great company. Do yourself a favor and listen to it.
Favorite Quotation: “Lakes are unmoving fetid pools, full of fish poop and frog parts. And I don’t want to hear from you people who live in the Great Lakes regions. I’m sure you’ll protest that your gigantic stale water ponds also have tides and are basically imitation seas because that’s even weirder. That’s like a dog pretending to be a human, and because it’s just a stupid dog it wears a rubber human suit and everyone says, ‘Why is that gross, rubbery human crawling around on the floor over there. It’s weird.’”
Why I Read It: I’m determined to listen to at least one audiobook per month in 2018, so this was my January pick. But I finished it so quickly that I’m going to have to move on to something else for the rest of the month. (I’m thinking Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perotta.)
Where I Got It: Audible.com, y’all. Yes, this is a deliberate plug and no, they’re not paying me.
Why You Should Listen To It: There is a serious lack of capable audiobook narrators out there, mostly because it’s really, really hard. Hodgman is so good that I would listen to any book he voiced, regardless of whether he wrote it. Like I said, he’s just great company. Also, in case you skipped over my 5-star rating, the book is terrific.
Did You Know?: Hodgman was recently named one of Portland Magazine’s “10 Most Intriguing Mainers.” But, you know, who gives a shit.