photo & text by nacrowe
in VACATIONLAND (PENGUIN, 2017), writer/actor/humorist JOHN HODGMAN presents a bittersweet memoir concerned with the inevitable struggles of growing older while simultaneously surviving summers on vacation at his second home in MAINE. he full admits how at length how WHITE PRIVILEGE that all sounds. and he's right. it is.
HODGMAN, of course, is primarily known for his work as a contributor to THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART as well as his famous stint in APPLE commercials, playing the role of a PC. his humor is dry, eccentric and bitingly clever. but this book in tone veers clear of what i would consider his persona. instead he focuses on what MAINE means to him, which is an extended metaphor for coming to terms with yourself and your own DEFICIENCIES.
you see, HODGMAN is a NEW ENGLANDER and only child from a comfortable suburban town outside BOSTON. after the death of his mother he inherits her house in WESTERN MASSACHUSETTS, which is really his introduction to home ownership and by extension ADULT RESPONSIBILITY. he adroitly mentions that apartment living in BROOKLYN is an extended adolescence free of the headaches of homeownership, as any and all problems are taken care of by the property superintendent. being a home owner by contrast requires some semblance of AUTONOMY, PREPAREDNESS and SELF-RELIANCE.
eventually he and his wife purchase a second home in MAINE. he presents a vision of MAINE as a serene, beautiful and thoroughly harsh place that creates a certain breed of individual. privacy is so widely respected that help is only given upon request. HODGMAN provides examples of help rendered by the local community with little regard for niceties such as etiquette or even extended conversation.
its difficult to read about this mode of existence without thinking that this "LIVE AND LET LIVE" mentality reverberates in HODGMAN's own SELF-IMAGE. growing older means effectively coming to terms with who you are and not what you think you are. its a painful realization that comes with the finality of being near death, as he experienced vicariously through his mother's passing. endings somehow bookend a sense of MEANING or mission in your life.
i remember years ago in NIGERIA attending a wedding for one of our gardeners. there was an elevated stage with the bride and groom, each on their own side. and both were facing the family of the other. before they wed there was a roast of sorts whereby each family member basically stated for all to hear everything that was wrong with them PHYSICALLY, INTELLECTUALLY, EMOTIONALLY, PSYCHOLOGICALLY, etc. i remember hearing someone say that the bride's hips were too narrow, that she'd only be able to birth no more than four children. it was BRUTAL yet in a ABSURD sense very POIGNANT, because what they were doing was publicly accepting them into the family as they actually were. warts and all.
i hear echos of that line of SELF-REALIZATION in this memoir. of realizing that you are not as clever, cool or knowledgable as you thought you were and being fine with that. i'm not gonna lie, i used to live in WESTERN MASSACHUSETTS, so its always interesting for me to read someone's thoughts on the area, especially NORTHAMPTON, GREENFIELD, AMHERST and the like.
this is a unique and eccentric book but ultimately rewarding because of its focus on SELF-ACCEPTANCE and BUILDING COMMUNITY. a compelling read.
photo & text by nacrowe
i was suggested this book by a history teacher in high school. it was the end of my sophomore year at a NEW ENGLAND boarding school and i had made the decision to join my parents the next year in KUWAIT. i had previously attended middle school in NIGERIA and had some familiarity with PAN-AFRICAN politics but none of that prepared me for THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MALCOLM X: AS TOLD TO ALEX HALEY (GROVE PRESS, 1965).
this was a book that pulled no punches and described an upbringing spent in the midwest under the thumb of segregation and overt racism. MALCOLM X, so self-monikered later in life from his birth-name MALCOLM LITTLE as a means of denying the name imposed on his family by a past slave master, was a man constantly in search of an identity which mirrored that of his following and really, AMERICA writ large. this book describes a leader and intellectual with a singular gift for oration and a sense of well-placed fiery righteous indignation. he is an interesting counterpoint to MARTIN LUTHER KING JR in his pre-HAJJ period in that he called for revolution. with a more than a hint of MARCUS GARVEY, he called for using all available instruments of persuasion and even coercion, a fight fire with fire strategy to ensure political rights. to some he is a patriot and others an insurrectionist. i side with the former.
again, for me the context of reading this book was my move to a MUSLIM country for the first time. whats interesting about MALCOLM X is that he belonged to the NATION OF ISLAM, an ISLAMIC-adjacent religious community that followed the controversial teachings of ELIJAH MUHAMMAD. given his background it makes sense that MALCOLM X would find a home within a community that promoted BLACK NATIONALISM and the political, economic and cultural empowerment of such therein. now the NATION OF ISLAM is well outside of the mainstream of modern ISLAM, and this book gets into that friction which to me was the most interesting aspect of his life's trajectory.
when i arrived in KUWAIT in the late summer of 2000, it was around the same time i got to the part of the book when MALCOLM X goes on his HAJJ to MECCA. for those that are not familiar, a pilgrimage to the holy city of MECCA in SAUDI ARABIA and bearing witness to the KAABA, or "The House of God," is mandatory religious duty of all MUSLIMS that have means and are physically able to do so at least once in a lifetime. for MALCOLM X this journey was a revelation. his religious and political belief system was very much intertwined with perceptions rooted in internal AMERICAN politics, attitudes and deep-seated beliefs regarding RACE. on pilgrimage he was stunned to see MUSLIMS of all ethnicities joining together as one religious community. like i said, this was a revelation and changed the tone of his politics until his death. it also marked his second conversion, this time to SUNNI ISLAM. with that conversion came a more muted political outlook that sought nonviolent means of persuasion in the pursuit of personal and political freedoms which found him more in line with the teachings of KING. this was his evolution.
for me this book was an introduction to the politics with ISLAM, something that provide a point of empathy in the post 9-11 period as well as my later time spent in MUSLIM-majority communities in ALBANIA and KOSOVO as a PEACE CORPS volunteer. this book gave me some sense of how religion cane be a deeply unifying and positive force fo connecting with others, even those that wish you harm. religion cane be a base of empathy. my time visiting SARAJEVO (BOSNIA) as well as KUKES (ALBANIA), PRIZREN and GJAKOVA (KOSOVO) taught me that in spades. this book only becomes more prescient and relevant as AMERICA continues to navigate and negotiate a tension within ourselves and our body politic to come to terms with our RACIST and SEGREGATIONIST past. to me MALCOLM X is a manifestation of that tension and his evolution serves as a reminder of what we can accomplish with a collective sense of moral strength and personal courage to evolve together.
i recommend this book to anyone interested in history that is complicated, counter-intuitive, entangled, passionately debated and highly instructive. could not recommend it any more strongly.