In his 2017 memoir, Vacationland, humorist John Hodgman describes his adopted home of Maine as “a beautiful place that I paradoxically want to hoard to myself and share with everyone I meet.”Photo Credit : Molly Haley
But it was as a humorist that Hodgman first broke through, starting with his 2005 almanac of fake facts, The Areas of My Expertise,and continuing with a string of best-selling books, including 2017’s Vacationland and last fall’s Medallion Status.
For season four of Weekends with Yankee (which premieres this April on public television stations around the country), I met up with Hodgman at a bookstore—one of his hometown hangouts, in fact, the Brookline Booksmith—where we talked about growing up, uncomfortable Maine beaches, and the indignities of middle age.
So, you’re back in your hometown. Do you feel you’ve reverted to your teenage self?
It’s very hard to feel a difference between [now and] who I was when I was ages 17, 18, when I really spent a lot of time here. On the one hand, you feel this distinct continuity to who you were before. And then all of a sudden, you realize everything’s changed. I’m not 17, I’m 48. I feel like a ghost haunting this place—but a very happy and content ghost, because this is a nice place to live. And be undead in, I would suspect
Vacationland is about a lot of favorite haunts in Maine and Massachusetts. It made us in New England feel special, you know?
I’m glad it made people in New England feel special, because people in New England have a moral difficulty with feeling good about themselves. …[I]t’s a region of the world in which the external loathing is made sweeter because you realize it’s all undercut by self-loathing. It was a strange thing moving to New York City and realizing what a friendly town it is. I show up and I’m like, “Why are people smiling at me? I’m not used to this at all. I’m from New England!”
But yes, Vacationland was … about growing up in Brookline, spending a lot of time as an adolescent and young grown-up in Western Massachusetts, and then transitioning more recently to coastal Maine, where my wife has family and where we’ve begun spending a good chunk of our year because she’s a high school teacher and I’m unemployed.
When did you realize you were well suited to Maine?
It’s interesting. I always considered myself part of Brookline. This truly was my world, and I did not need my world to be much larger than the Coolidge Corner area. Maybe a trip to the Nickelodeon in Kenmore Square. And what a world! You had one of the greatest bookstores in the world, one of the greatest video stores in the world. Those are the two things I cared about other than friends. So I did not expect myself to feel comfortable on the painful, rocky beaches of coastal Maine.
Actually, I can’t say that I’ve grown comfortable, because Maine resists comfort of all kinds. There are things constantly biting you and hurting your feet, and precipices for you to tumble off of. But I did find a perfect place to start feeling older, because going through the beginnings of middle age … is similar to swimming in Maine. It’s a very cold experience, it’s a very lonely experience, and you wish it were not happening to you. The difference between getting older and going swimming in Maine is that going swimming is a dumb choice you made; you didn’t have to do it. As with all new experiences, it’s really uncomfortable, but then your body numbs and adjusts, and then it’s kind of a glorious, fun thing to do, and you’re better because you’ve gone through it.
Do you find that middle age brings with it a constant denial of reality?
In Medallion Status, I talk about going back to Yale, which is where I went to school. That’s a four-year accredited institution in southern Connecticut. I got a bachelor’s of arts degree in literary theory there. … I got invited back by [one of Yale’s secret societies] … and it was a remarkable, fun evening of hanging out with people who were much younger than I, and I had some very good advice for them, like, Don’t get drunk and fall down the stairs like I did … you’re not immortal, you just think you are … and if someone invites you to do something interesting in life, even if it’s a little bit scary, you should say yes. Like, if someone invites you to have dinner in a secret society, you might be worried that you will become a blood sacrifice, but in fact, it’s just a nice time hanging out with younger people.
And boy, could I hang out with those younger people! They were happy to hang out with me, I was happy to hang out with them. And the night got very late and I thought, I could stay here forever. I’m young, too! And that’s when I realized, Oh, no, I should have left long ago. I’m a creepy old dude who doesn’t know when to leave.
That record-scratch moment of realizing you’re not one of them, right?
And they all go, “What’s a ‘record scratch’? What are you talking about?”
At times you feel this complete connection to your younger self, and you cannot believe you are the person you see in the mirror. I want to say it takes your breath away, but not in a good way. In the panic-attack sort of way.
Just because I’ve been thinking so much about the trajectory of my life—a) because I’ve been writing this book, and b) because I’m an egotist—I woke up the other day and I had, for the first time in years and years, this very vivid memory of my first day in high school, which I had not remembered at all. Not only where I was sitting that day, but the feeling I was having at the time, long lost to time in my brain. But I think because my son just started high school, it came back up, and it truly was a not-comfortable experience to feel the breadth of time and have the breath taken from me in that moment.
But if you were to not have those uncomfortable moments of breaks with the past, you’d be a terrible person. You’d be Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused.
Season four of Weekends with Yankee, which features our interview with John Hodgman as well as conversations with other notable New Englanders, premieres April 18 on WGBH, WGBY, and New Hampshire PBS. To search your own local listings, go to newengland.com/weekendswithyankee.