In “Vacationland,” author John Hodgman writes “the ocean is traumatically cold. If you make the mistake of going into it, every cell in your body will begin shouting the first half of the word “hypothermia” into your brain; the second half will simply be frozen tears.” THINKSTOCK PHOTO

Humorist John Hodgman’s “Vacationland” funny, insightful

ELLSWORTH — One brave man is calling out Maine’s beaches for what they really are: painful.

He’s the comedian and writer John Hodgman (“The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” “Married,” “The Areas of My Expertise,” “More Information Than You Require” and “That is All”). His latest book, “Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches” (Viking, 2017, $14.80), is in part an ode to Maine.

“The ocean in Maine is traumatically cold. If you make the mistake of going into it, every cell in your body will begin shouting the first half of the word hypothermia into your brain: the second half will simply be frozen tears,” Hodgman writes. “And the beaches of Maine offer no relief as you launch yourself back onto shore, because the beaches of Maine are made out of jagged stones shaped like knives.”

Hodgman, 46, speaks from experience. The bestselling author and his wife, Katherine Fletcher, have houses in Brooklin and Brooklyn, N.Y. He grew up in Brookline, Mass.

Hodgman finds lakes and ponds creepy. “If you ever go snorkeling in your father-in-law’s lake in Maine, you will see for yourself that it is all ooze and muck and fallen trees and sunken demonic cities,” he writes. “Lacking natural predators, the freshwater clams grow to the size of Nerf footballs. They sit half submerged in the mire, their pale shells opening and closing, singing to you as you snorkel above, ‘Join us, join us, join us.’”

During a brief telephone interview, the humorist and former correspondent for “The Daily Show” explained that Maine is Fletcher’s favorite place in the world. His wife grew up visiting Surry during the summer. Her grandmother had a house on Newbury Neck that an uncle still owns. The couple have been making the trek here for a couple of decades.

So, it should not surprise that Maine and its painful beaches would provide fodder and eventually crop up in his writing.

“This is a book about me and my beard wandering through three wildernesses: the green mountains of rural western Massachusetts where I disposed of my youth, the mercilessly painful beaches of coastal Maine where I will eventually accept my death, and the haunted forest of middle age that lies between them.”

Nothing is sacred in the book, not Moxie, not Perry’s Nut House and certainly not hedge fund wives dropping off their children at a yacht club.

On Moxie:

“It is difficult to enjoy even ironically and so it has largely stayed within the confines of Massachusetts and Maine, where it is sometimes mixed with coffee brandy, as the people of Maine have a punishing streak of self-hatred that makes Bostonians seem like lighthearted imps.”

Hodgman says in the book’s acknowledgements that “Vacationland” grew out of stories he first told at Union Hall in Brooklyn.

The “central conflict” of Hodgman’s life and the book is, he said, that he owns two summer homes. One in Massachusetts had belonged to his mother, who died when Hodgman was 29.

In a chapter titled “The IT Guy for Duck Dynasty,” Hodgman wrote, “When I first started telling these stories onstage, my friend John Roderick back-announced my performance by saying to the audience, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the white privilege comedy of John Hodgman.’ It was a painful but fair assessment.”

During the interview Hodgman explained why he describes middle age as “a haunted forest.”

“When people reach a certain point, the path they’ve been following seems less clear,” he said. “When we realize we’re facing down the second half of our life, if we’re lucky, it’s a moment of crisis. There’s a reason they call it that.”

“Once you’ve deployed your youth and hopefully made and done good things, the path forward is not so very clear,” Hodgman said.

The former literary agent said this holds true even for those who have done what they wanted and reached a certain level of success.

But it’s “even worse if you’ve reached your 40s and 50s and haven’t done the things you needed to do,” he said.

Hodgman, a Yale graduate with a degree in literary theory, said he can’t account for the success he’s had.

“Maybe I’ve had too much. Where do I go from here? Writing the book [“Vacationland”] was figuring out the answer.”

Maine is the place for anyone suffering from any sort of life or relationship transition, the author said.

“Maine has a lot to offer you. It has a lot of rugged beauty and empty ocean to remind you that nature doesn’t care if you live or die.”

Hodgman vocalizes the toil and angst that comes with home ownership, from visiting the dump to having trees chopped down.

“Here is another bit of homeowner’s advice. If you have never owned a freestanding house that is heated by propane, you may not know that the propane does not arrive by magic. This came as a great surprise to me.

“I did not know what that giant white metal Tylenol out in the backyard was for. I thought it was just some weird personal submarine my father had collected. But that is not what it is: it is a propane tank.”

Hodgman despairs of mice droppings in utensil drawers as well as raccoon excrement on the porch of the house he inherited from his mother.

“Once a raccoon used its little mutant humanlike hands to open our screen door while we were just sitting there gin-and-Scrabbling,” Hodgman wrote. “It poked its head into our human house and just looked at us sadly as if to say, ‘You guys know I could come in here and kill you at anytime right?’”

Hodgman is painfully funny. But, there is a thoughtful, sensitive man underneath the humor.

Consider what he wrote about money.

“This country is founded on some very noble ideals but also some very big lies. One is that everyone has a fair chance at success…Another is that if you’re not rich, don’t worry about it, because rich people aren’t really happy.

I am the white male living proof that all of that is garbage. The vast degree to which my mental health improved once I had the smallest measure of economic security immediately unmasked this shameful fiction to me.

John Hodgman has a comedic court podcast called “Judge John Hodgman. He writes a weekly column under the same name for The New York Times.

Money cannot buy happiness but it buys the conditions for happiness: time, occasional freedom from constant worry, a moment of breath to plan for the future and the ability to be generous.”

Plus, one must respect a public figure who declines to identify his daughter and son. When the occasion warrants, Hodgman said he refers to them as Hodgmina and Hodgmanillo.

He writes about Fletcher purchasing a Peapod at an auction in Brooklin.

“By the time we got the peapod in the water, it was getting cold. Leaves were yellowing on the trees, and you could already see the light was lower in the sky. Autumn was arriving. It was August first.”

“Vacationland” is for anyone who lives in Maine or has ever driven across the state line.


John Hodgman as ob-gyn in “Baby Mama” “I just don’t like your uterus,” Hodgman’s character says to Tina Fey, whose character is a single, career woman intent on having a baby.

Jennifer Osborn

Jennifer Osborn

Reporter and columnist at The Ellsworth American
News Reporter Jennifer Osborn covers news and features on the Blue Hill Peninsula and Deer Isle-Stonington. She welcomes tips and story ideas. She also writes the Gone Shopping column. Email Jennifer with your suggestions at [email protected] or call 667-2576.
Jennifer Osborn

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