From Tourist to Local, Almost: John Hodgman’s ‘Vacationland’

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John Hodgman didn’t know what to do after he ended the world he created in his third book of made-up knowledge, That Is All. “I panicked,” says the one-time The Daily Show contributor. But he took the advice of comedian Mike Birbiglia, booked a weekly spot to perform at Union Hall in Brooklyn and decided to see what would happen. It got a little weird. “I definitely was doing a pretty hot impersonation of Ayn Rand for a while,” Hodgman says. “But more and more what was coming out was more not fake facts, but awful truths about my regular dumb life and true straight-forward storytelling.”

Eventually, those stories turned into his new book Vacationland, in which Hodgman discusses vacationing in Maine, growing up in Massachusetts and having a beard. So, we decided to ask him a bunch of prying questions about it. We figured he’d understand. After all, he used to write about food for us – a job he says was a lot of fun. “I like food. I need it to live,” Hodgman says. “I mean, I don’t want to brag, but I literally live on it.”

The former PC from the “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” Apple commercials answered our call from the “internet tent of the town” – a mosquito net that covers a table, chairs and a power strip outside a Maine public library – where he spends part of his vacations. Here’s Hodgman on the endearing sternness of Mainers, what makes a good tourist and chainsaws.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What’s it like being a tourist among locals in Maine?

On the one hand, having visited this area of Maine now for well over a decade and having owned property in this small town–which I will not name for fear of you and all humans – now for almost four years, it is hard to make the argument that I am exactly a tourist. But then, I would never make the argument that I am a local, because even if I had owned property in Maine and lived here year-round for twice that time, I was not born here and my parents were not born here and my grandparents were not born here. I think [that would] ultimately mark me as quote-on-quote “from away” forever. So I visit Maine in something of a twilight world. On the one hand, I’m devoted to its harsh beauty and painful beaches and to its communities that I wish to support and foster, but also knowing that I will never be fully accepted and never be fully un-hated. And that is what I deserve.

How do you negotiate being in between a tourist and a local?

I negotiate that space by not talking a lot. This is not a profoundly talkative place and it is unwise to speak more than you are spoken to. It is a place that teaches you to listen rather than flap your dumb Massachusetts gums and wait until the other person is ready to open up – somewhat.

Do you have any examples?

This is the fourth year that we’ve had a post office box at the very small post office in the town. The postmaster, a woman named Claire, spent three of those years being mostly silent with us. And when she spoke, it usually conveyed the message that we were in profound trouble, because we were not getting our mail frequently enough and it was being annoying to her.

When we arrived in town at the end of June this year, having not paid for the renewal of the box – we were well over due on our duties to the U.S. postal system – and having not forwarded any mail, and, indeed, having racked up a number of parcels that had been uncollected for months, I was really steeling myself for being thoroughly scolded. Instead, she smiled very widely and asked us how we were doing. No one in Maine has ever seemed interested in how we were doing in a decade. And both my wife and I were really struck by the sudden and inexplicable change of mood and friendliness. And the question about how we were doing was followed by other questions, and all kinds of inexplicable friendliness that we simply accepted at that point and realized that – in the post offices and the rest of the state – for the people that live here year-round, they will watch you for a long time and then their mood will shift in their own time. I guess if you do not profoundly fuck up too badly, eventually they will ask after your health. But otherwise, forget it.

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Does being able to listen well make you a good tourist?

I think being a good tourist, wherever you’re traveling, even if you are traveling to vacation destinations that have beaches that are soft and warm, that you want to be on and oceans that are glorious and clear and not so cold that they want to kill you, and people in the world who treat you as thought you actually deserve pleasure in life – even if you go to these places it is important to listen more than talk, and observe more than demand, and learn rather than instruct – or attempt to instruct – how life should be lived. Because that’s the pleasure of going to a different place: you see a different way of life. And replicating your own way of life in a different part of the world is no fun. What’s the point in that?

What have you learned from listening rather than talking?

You need to have Kevlar chaps if you’re going to be operating a chainsaw, because you will cut your leg in half if you don’t. That said, lots of people in Maine, mostly men, still operate a chainsaw without Kevlar chaps or even gloves or face protection, because people in rural parts – men, especially, in rural parts of the world – love to cut things up, including their own bodies, I guess.

I also learned that if you are employed in the state of Maine by any sort of forest logging concern and you are operating a chainsaw, that you have to keep, by law, on your person a blood-stopping device should you cut yourself open with your chainsaw – a blood-stopping device, meaning a maxi pad. The chainsaw instructor seems very embarrassed to have to admit, ultimately, that he’s asking you to go get a Kotex, which you put in your pocket should you cut into your body with a chainsaw. You may have realized that I began my summer by taking a chainsaw class, which was the most exciting, but also terrifying and physically and emotionally depleting, thing that I have done, well, since getting up the morning after the presidential election.

Why did you take a chainsaw class?

A.) I needed some wood cut up on my property.

B.) It’s a fucking chainsaw class.

You have a kind of strange relationship with Maine in the book. You talk about the differences between the way Mainers behave from other people and the unwelcoming geography. Is tourism in Maine worth it?

As I say in the book, Maine is a challenging place. It’s full of bugs and sharp rocks and cold water and quiet, stern people. It is not going out of its way to make you feel welcome. If anything, it’s going out of its way to give you a rash or cut you. There are easier places to go on vacation. But there are people in life who seek out ease and there are people in life who seek out what I consider to be more enduring pleasure of getting into the water and almost freezing to death and surviving it. So, if you’re someone like me, who has some doubts about whether he deserves pleasure in the first place, Maine works out very nicely.

Should you bring kids there?

It’s a great place to bring kids, because kids are too young to know any better. They’ve never been to the beaches in Florida necessarily. If all they know is you know walking on beaches that are made of razor sharp stones, then their feet toughen up. And I think my kids enjoy it very much. But it’s hard to know whether that’s because they intrinsically enjoy it or whether I have psychologically damaged them to the point where they also feel they don’t deserve pleasure.

There is a Japanese term, wabi-sabi. It roughly translates to sort of beauty in brokenness. Beauty in imperfection. While Maine can be a glorious place in the summer with big, bright blue skies, empty of cloud as it is right now, hot and trees rustling and the beautiful light wind, tomorrow it could easily be locked in fog and 55 degrees and/or raining. And that unpredictability, that sort of brokenness of pattern, is one of the many ways in which Maine is wabi-sabi. It is unpredictable, and it makes time pass slower as a result, which is, I think, what you want to do when you’re traveling, right? Sameness makes time pass quickly when you’re on vacation. But the texture of difference, having one day be a beautiful sunny day and the next day be the day that you accidentally cut your hand open with a chainsaw or get attacked by a barn door and have its old fashioned iron latch lodged into your arm after it blows into you in a stiff breeze. That adds a little texture. It makes things go more slowly.

You’re a comedian, but your book touches on some pretty heavy topics, like your mother’s death and you coming to terms with your own mortality. How do you balance being serious and funny in the book?

It’s not a conscious decision one way or the other. When I started out as a writer, I wanted to write serious short stories about people with big thoughts and feelings. And the first story that I published, I was invited to read at an event that the magazine was holding. And this is a serious story about people with thoughts and feelings, and I read it, and it got laughs—and I didn’t know I was being funny until I heard the laughter. People weren’t laughing at me, they felt the lines were just sort of funny. Later, as I went on, I was encouraged to go ahead and be funny in my writing, whether it was McSweeney’s, which is where I started writing humor properly, or for Men’s Journal, which was my first full-time writing job, writing about food, wine and alcohol. My editor, Mark Adams, said you should go ahead and be funny here. And I was like, “That seems cheap.” He’s like, “Not everyone can do it.” I’m like, “Okay.”

Then I wrote the three books of complete absurdist humor, inventing a whole bunch of invented trivia and fake facts. And for whatever reason I’m not interested in doing that anymore. Partly, that’s because everyone is doing fake facts now, at every level of our government, and, partly, because as we get older and experience more of life, your brain changes. So it’s true that this book isn’t funny all the time, and some might argue isn’t funny at all. With my books and with my performed comedy, my mission is always just to give all of myself that I can and to do so honestly and to let it come out however it comes out. 

Is being funny sort of just the way you talk about these topics or process these emotions?

the words and ideas fall out of my head, they’re either funny or they’re not
funny. As long as they’re true and an honest expression of what’s actually
going on in my head, that’s all I can do. It’s not that that’s what I want to
do. It’s all that I can do, and it’s what is most likely to connect with an
audience. Because if they don’t like it, then that’s cool. I know at least I
wasn’t holding anything back. 

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