Source of book: Borrowed from the library
I’m not quite sure how this book ended up on my library read list, but very likely I read something on NPR or another book review source I trust, and put it on there. It didn’t register to me at the time who John Hodgman was at the time, but I realized as I read the book that “oh, THAT’s who he is.
Yep, that’s John Hodgman on the left as “PC,” with Justin Long on the right as “Mac.” And let me be honest here: these commercials are one reason I have never owned an Apple product. Is that fair? Probably not. But whatever Justin Long is like in real life (and he’s probably a normal guy), in this character, he is the annoying hipster douchebag that we all know, who thinks he is a better person because he owns more expensive crap. Like a Mac.
In contrast, John Hodgman as PC is actually funny and likeable. He is clearly the guy you want at your dinner party - and as your comedian.
Ironically, Hodgman is a longtime Mac user. I have no idea about Long.
Anyway, yes, this book is written by THAT John Hodgman, and it is quite amusing, serious, and thoughtful by turns. I quite enjoyed it. You might too, if he is your sort of thing.
The title Vacationland comes from the state of Maine, which has this on their license plates. I mean, here in California, we are The Golden State. But Maine is Vacationland, apparently. I’m shaking my head at this still. And yes, the second half of the book is ALL about Maine, specifically the vacations that Hodgman and his wife and kids take there, first renting a house, then buying one of their own.
The first half, in contrast, is mostly (although not entirely) about their earlier vacations to the home that Hodgman inherited from his mother in western Massachusetts. Already, it is apparent that this will be about family differences, and will be funny. Which is true.
There is also an introduction, an interlude, and an epilogue, which talk about Hodgman’s beard and upbringing, hijinks in a graveyard with his daughter, and the death of his mother, respectively. The first two are humorous, the final one introspective and thoughtful.
Hodgman grew up fairly privileged - something he readily acknowledges and wrestles with throughout the book. Thanks to his TV commercials, he banked enough to pretty much do what he wants now - an enviable lifestyle, but not one available to most of us. So he knows he has it good, and feels some guilt for his good fortune. He is not, however, a douche, so he tries to be a decent guy about it all. It is both amusing and - in the passages on racism and police brutality - self aware and thoughtful.
So, here are some good quotes.
In talking about his Massachusetts vacation home, he notes the issues with waste disposal that his family had when he was a kid - the nearest dump was in another county, so they weren’t supposed to use it. This fear of getting caught carried over, and he notes that stuff tended to just accumulate.
We have not been back for a while for reasons that I will explain later in this book. And this makes me anxious for all kinds of existential reasons, but also because the last time we were there I left four large contractor bags full of rotting food waste piled in the garage. This has become something of a habit of mine. It’s not a responsible thing to do if you own a house or simply want to be part of civilization. It is absolutely an invitation to a racoon heist.
I’m confess to doing this not too long ago at my in-laws’ vacation home, although we at least remembered where MOST of the garbage was. Here in CA, you get bears too, and a big mess. Sorry, folks!
How did this start? Well, Hodgman was coached to lie if asked where he lived, so they could use the close dump. (In practice, nobody asked…)
I did not like any of this plan. As I have mentioned, I am an only child. This makes me a member of the worldwide super-smart-afraid-of-conflict-narcissist club. And let me emphasize: afraid of conflict. Since I had no siblings to routinely challenge/hit me and equally no interest in playing sports, I had grown up without any experience in conflict. I therefore had no reason to imagine that confrontation of any kind, ranging from fighting to kissing, was not probably fatal.
Speaking of his childhood, I should mention that he played the viola, largely because it was less popular than the violin. Hodgman was (and is) kind of a contrarian, and he took a different path than his parents. His mom was a nurse, and his father was...well, he did business-y things with tech companies. (Hodgman is still unclear on exactly what his dad did.)
When I became an actual physical adult, it was terrible. After high school I went to Yale. If you are not convinced of what an easy time I had of it, witness this: I took no loans and needed no financial aid. My parents had saved assiduously, and I punished their good deed by studying literary theory. Not literature-- that would be too practical. I was less interested in books than I was in the concept of books. That is still true.
This is kind of his tone in speaking of his early years, when he bounced around low-paying but interesting jobs, free to meander without the need to, you know, work hard to eat. He knows it, of course, so it is hard to really resent him.
Also, his thoughtful moments are pretty good. Here is one that I particularly liked, as part of a musing on the old song “Rocky Top” after a fascinating event in Tennessee.
Now, normally, I consider nostalgia to be a toxic impulse. It is the twinned, yearning delusion that (a) the past was better (it wasn’t) and (b) it can be recaptured (it can’t) that leads at best to bad art, movie versions of old TV shows, and sad dads watching Fox News. At worst it leads to revisionist, extremist politics, fundamentalist terrorism, and the victory--in Appalachia in particular--of a narcissist Manhattan cartoon maybe millionaire and cramped-up city creep wh, if he ever did go up to Rocky Top in real life, would never come down again.
There are so many truths in this one. On a personal note, nostalgia is what drove my family’s involvement in Bill Gothard’s cult, and what drives Trump’s popularity with white conservatives. Those twin delusions that the past was better, and that it can be re-created - that time when women and minorities “knew their place,” of course - lead people to accept violence and oppression of people not like them. All in the name of nostalgia.
On a much lighter note, the three page vignette on Hodgman and his daughter at the graveyard is pretty hilarious. He had a mustache back then, and his daughter got quizzed by the guard who seems to have thought Hodgman was a pervert kidnapping a kid. Apparently, something about the look caused a lot of people to stare.
I could not see into their windows, but I could imagine the inner debate as they paused.
Should we get out and save that little girl from that man?
Or should we flee from these obvious, terrifying ghosts who are creepily waving at us, luring us out of our car so that they can steal our souls forever?
After a while one impulse would win out over the other and they would drive on. It happened several times. It was fantastic.
So, they decided to do the same thing at different places in the graveyard, with the hope that they might become a ghost story - and thus become immortal.
The Maine stories are hilarious too - the weird reticence of the natives contrasting with the tourists, and the whole lifestyle. And, of course, the way Hodgman and his wife get sucked into the culture. At one point, they “accidentally” win a handmade boat (a Maine Coast Pea Pod by a famous builder) at auction, and Hodgman has to learn how to back a trailer. My first time trying to get our travel trailer into my driveway (hardly the most difficult place, actually…) was amusing. For other people. Like my wife. It was not pretty.
Driving backward with the trailer is not easy. Steering in reverse is already an unnatural act requiring years of brain-searing experience to feel anything close to instinctive and unterrifying. But now you are also pushing a long aluminum trailer full of peapod behind you, and it is doing the exact opposite of everything you have learned. If you steer right, it goes left. If you line it up perfectly with where you are trying to push it--say the gravelly slope of the landing at the boatyard--and you begin backing up, it veers off to the right due either to micro-angles between the trailer and your hitch or the fact that trailers are inherently assholes. If you attempt to recorrect your course, the laws of physics change. This actually happens: all of natural law reverses and suddenly your peapod is beside you, jackknifed in the boatyard parking lot.
This is true, in my experience.
I also should mention the chapter on Black Lives Matter. This book was written in 2017, but nothing really has changed. Okay, other than the fact that Paul LePage is out as Maine governor - one positive of the last few years. Hodgman has a good take both on white privilege and on what has changed in the 21st Century that has brought things to a boil. In essence, we have video now. Hodgman describes cell phones as “civilian surveillance device[s]” and he is not wrong. And with these everywhere, it is increasingly difficult to ignore the pattern.
We could see the similarities of the killings as they tumbled one after one into our feeds, the specific details, mitigating circumstances, and tragic split-second decisions blurring into what couldn’t be denied: a pattern, self-similar and replicating, seemingly infinite and seemingly unstoppable...an ugly fractal of injustice with cruel edges, twisting in on itself, choking out life.
You had to see it, though many tried not to and tried hard. In different parts of the world, protests sprung up to defend the humanity of the specific people who have been killed, as well as non-white people everywhere. Some white people found that standing up for the humanity of non-white people somehow threatened their humanity, and made a point of saying so on the internet. They fought the Black Lives Matter idea with a fervor which was unseemly and dumb. It reminded me of the offense I took when I realized I would not live forever: how dare you suggest I am not the hero of this story? I am a straight white man! I have been right at the center of this culture for a long time, and now you ask me to be quiet for a few days and listen to someone else’s experience? Look, I know that you will soon outnumber me, and my ability to define reality will soon disappear, but not yet! I am still here! YOU NEED TO LISTEN TO MY THAT MY LIFE MATTERS BECAUSE I AM SECRETLY NOT SURE OF IT ANYMORE! I’M STILL COOL! I’M STILL RELEVANT! HERE ARE HORRIBLE, BADLY DESIGNED MEMES TO PROVE IT! It wasn’t just aging guys like me anymore; it was as if all of Whiteness was going through a desperate midlife crisis.
I will end with a mention of a certain “famous author,” as Hodgman puts it. Apparently, this author lived near where Hodgman’s Maine home is, and he knows the people (a bit) who now own this author’s house. He gives various hints, and encourages readers to follow the clues and read this author’s writing. I did, and I agree: you should read his stuff.
Vacationland was a nice change from other stuff I have been reading lately, and makes for a humorous yet thoughtful vacation read, if you need one. And yes, I am typing this on….a PC.
Hodgman's interview with Trevor Noah about the book is pretty good.