We could not go far in the peapod. It wasn’t designed for distance, but it didn’t matter. Things were different on the water. Where Massachusetts had been my land and Maine, at least the land part, had been [my wife’s], the ocean and the little shelter islands that we could reach as our rowing arms grew stronger were new and neutral territory. I would stand up in the boat—because you really could do that . . . you really could break that rule, because the peapod would not tip or fail you—and I would scan the shore. Maine may be full of ambiguities, and its sky full of shades of gray. But it can also be blunt, and sometimes its metaphors can be a little on the nose. So I regret that I must write: I literally had a new point of view.
A typical outing would be to a little island, only a few oar strokes from shore. We would beach the peapod for a moment so that our children could get out. They would go off exploring on their own. You could walk the whole perimeter of the island in an hour, just strolling. But even when your children are older and have demonstrated common sense and physical and emotional resiliency due to your really incredible, award-worthy parenting, you still feel a pang of panic when they leave your sight. I would watch them disappear behind the trees as the shoreline curved off to the right, where they would scamper on slick wet rocks or fall or drown or meet an ill-intentioned stranger or whatever their fate might be.
And then my wife would also leave me, taking the peapod out on a solo row, following her deep, genetic Maine blood–calling to the ocean and misanthropy. I would watch her then disappear as the island curved around to my left, rowing her boat, utterly alone, the happiest I’ve ever seen her.
They would leave me on the beach, an only child once more, and I would take off my shirt and go swimming. By the end of that summer I had started swimming pretty frequently in the waters of Maine. I would not say that I learned to enjoy it. Even in August, when the water is at its warmest, it is still cold. But I did enjoy learning to endure it.
There are transitions in life whether we want them or not. You get older. You lose jobs and loves and people. The story of your life may change dramatically, tragically, or so quietly you don’t even notice. It’s never any fun, but it can’t be avoided. Sometimes you just have to walk into the cold dark water of the unfamiliar and suffer for a while. You have to go slow, breathe, don’t stop, get your head under, and then wait. And soon you get used to it. Soon the pain is gone and you have forgotten it because you are swimming, way out here where it’s hard and where you were scared to go, swimming sleekly through the new. That’s the gift of a Maine vacation: you survive it. (pg 237)
For my husband’s birthday in September, I gave him the gift of podcasts. You see, I had overplayed my hand at Father’s Day by giving him Apple AirPods, a present he had proved over the summer to be wildly successful by having one in his ear at virtually all times. After only two and a half months, I had no brilliant ideas to top that, so I did one of my least favorite things – research – to try to find new programs for him to listen to. As it turns out, even with all of the internet at my disposal, I’m garbage at research, so I turned to my friend Tiff, who’s fabulous at it, and she guided me to a list of podcasts he might like. That is where we discovered John Hodgeman.
My husband became immediately obsessed with his show, Judge John Hodgeman, and would often shove a headphone in my ear while I was trying to sleep because he knew it would resonate with me too. (To be fair, it always did, but as the parent of two young children, I will always choose sleep over being entertained.)
Fast forward to November, when my mother came to visit, and granted us a rare opportunity for a lunch and bookstore date. We saw a copy of Vacationland on the Staff Picks table, and my husband flipped through it, chuckling and insisting I would love it. I ignored him because I was too busy drooling over all the recipes in the new Smitten Kitchen cookbook that I would never have the time (or talent) to make. He ended up buying it on Kindle later that day after lamenting leaving it behind, and a few weeks ago, while getting ready to fly to Sydney for work, he rediscovered it.
As it happened, I was between books at the time and decided to give it a shot. I ended up devouring it before he even left on his trip, often laughing hard and silently to myself as I waited for the baby to fall asleep. When I finished, I tried to convey to him how deeply the setting – Western Mass and Maine – resonated with me. I spent most of my own childhood vacations haunting those same fields and shores, and revisiting them through Hodgeman’s eyes was both accurate and hilarious.
I finally understood why he’d been tirelessly promoting this guy (who I usually think of as “that old correspondent for The Daily Show”) to me. Hodgeman is the person I would have become if I’d married someone exactly like my brother (whose address might be in NH but is a true Mainer at heart). It’s impossible to read this book and not see my family in place of his, to see my own neuroses and flaws in him. It gave me a wonderful, slightly morose feeling, glancing up from the page to see the past rush by, a tidal wave of happy hours spent in the sand, pointless pouts and arguments, rainy days in tiny motel rooms, productions of Shakespeare watched as the sun set and the mosquitos converged.
My husband seems to be enjoying it too, in case you were wondering, if not with quite the wistful nostalgia I experienced. Even after all these years together, I haven’t completely converted him from a peaceful Coloradan to a curmudgeonly New Englander, which is really for the best since I’ve grown to love my time rock hopping in the mountains as much as drowsing by the rocky Atlantic sands.
*A piece of site business: you may have noticed I’ve been MIA for about a month. It turns out that until both children are back in childcare, the demands on my time don’t permit regular posting. I’ll do my best to share the best books I’m reading until I can get back on track in a few months.
2 thoughts on “Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches, John Hodgeman”
Glad to have you back whenever you can be! And looking forward to this book, though I am not sure that an Iowan can ever be a New Englander.
hallo darling, you wrote this in March, I have just read it in June… so we are both MIA, sort of – but having wonderful children is surely better than having to move up, changing job , coping with the loss of my loved one (after one year, things are still a mess). The book deeply resonated with me too, not from a geographical point of view (mine was Italian and French Alps), but let’s say that my own childhood holidays were filled with the very same neurosis. I am going to buy the book (kindle – shelf space is beginning to be a problem…)