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Food, Fur and Fun: Our Weekend with John Hodgman Part 2

Part 2: Things Get Better

Who is Hodgman?

As I picked away at my adequate Supreme™ Pizza, I tried to think back to where I first heard of John Hodgman. I realized he had been on my radar for only about a year. Neil Gaiman had tweeted that one of his favourite new podcasts was something called “Judge John Hodgman“. I dutifully went to iTunes and downloaded it to see what it was all about. It reminded me, as I’m sure is it’s intent, of the old “People’s Court” TV show. On this podcast, people bring their complaints to “Judge” John Hodgman who will hear both sides and then retire to chambers before rendering a verdict. Like Judge Wapner, Hodgman has a trusty bailiff, Jesse Thorn, who introduces the podcast and interviews the parties before and after judgment is given. The cases that are brought range from household pet-peeves (should the person who takes the garbage out also be responsible for replacing the kitchen catcher bag under the sink?) to etiquette (is it poor form to ask a cabbie to take you through a drive-thru?) to even matters of science (is there such a thing as car lag? i.e. jet lag from road trips?). In fact, Marla and I believe we have a case worthy of adjudication. It involves when to open doors for another person. Marla and I hold very different views on this topic and I believe only someone like John Hodgman could settle this for us. Mr. Hodgman seems to be the perfect person to adjudicate these kinds of complaints as he has written 3 books of COMPLETE WORLD KNOWLEDGE. They are written in the style of those old-timey almanacs, expect that every fact and article is COMPLETELY MADE UP. They are wonderful reads and I found myself wanting to read sections of them out loud to people on many occasions. You really need to own all three, as the page numbers continue right where the last book left off, and many items cross-reference each other across the books. The third volume, “That is All” plays off the idea that the world will come to an end on Dec 21, 2012 according to the Mayan calendar. Much of the third book concerns itself with the portents and omens surround Ragnarok, the Scandinavian concept of cataclysmic rebirth. In fact, the evening’s entertainment is simply titled “That is All: An Evening with John Hodgman”. It was much later that I realized that John Hodgman also appeared in the “Hi, I’m a Mac” commercials. (He played the PC). People tell me that he has also made numerous appearances on Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” as the resident expert, although I do not see that show as I’m not usually up that late. Perhaps with my newly acquired PVR I can change all that.

So here we were, about to see the man himself.  After supper, we drove past the little Italian restaurant that was so busy an hour ago. Who did we see on the sidewalk? You guessed it. John Hodgman. Marla wanted to try to get a picture of him, but by the time I had the car turned around, he was gone. We had officially become stalkers, apparently.

The University of Minnesota Morris campus was beautiful. It’s been around only since 1960 and many of the buildings were built in the Frank Lloyd Wright Prairie style. As we walked into the student building we bumped into the guy who turned me down flat at the restaurant. Although I had demonized him in my mind, he seemed like a nice guy and appeared to be happy to see us. “You made it!” he exclaimed. He shook our hands and told us his name was Dave. He worked at UMM as the events coordinator. We introduced ourselves and told him we drove down from Winnipeg. “Winnipeg.” He said it with that mix of wonder and confusion that many Americans use when they’ve heard of a place but can’t quite place it. As we were waiting to be let into the auditorium, news flashed across the TV screens in the student lounge that Whitney Houston had died. “Who’s Whitney Houston?”  said a couple of students passing by. I guess we’re old. Dave was also taking tickets, and as he tore ours, he remembered us and said “I just talked to John and he said he’d be happy to sign stuff afterwards”. I thought that was really great of him to ask and remember us enough to pass the message on. “That Dave is all right, ” I thought to myself and we entered the auditorium.

In my mind I’m going to Carolina

It was rush seating so we chose a spot about half-way down in the middle. Soon a group sat down next to us and the guy turned out to be quite the chatter. In about 10 minutes we found out that he and his wife lived in Fargo but used to work in Morris and still had friends there. They had come down to visit friends and decided to come to see Hodgman too. We discovered that his niece and I both attended the same library school, and that he and my wife both played the ukulele. He was friendly. Maybe a little too friendly. Oh, and he was the spitting image of James Taylor.

“Good evening, I’m John Hodgman”.

Finally, it was time for the man himself, John Hodgman. He’s been touring the country in a “deranged millionaire” persona on this latest book tour. This includes growing a creepy moustache, wearing dark glasses and going places without shoes or socks. I am delighted to report that moustache, glasses and bare feet were all in attendance that night! He even brought a ukulele. He gave us a solid two hours of eccentric humour that had the entire auditorium in stitches. A lot of the material dealt with Ragnarok, like the types of animals you’ll want to keep on hand after the apocalypse for “food, fur and fun”. These include rabbits for their gift of the second sight, “Watership Down” style. It made me think that maybe this was a little bit what college audiences got to see in the ’60s and ’70s when the likes of Woody Allen and Andy Kaufman made the circuit. It was wonderful to experience it and well worth the drive down. As an introduction he said that most people would probably not know much about him, as the crowd was mostly younger college types, “Except for a couple of weirdos that drove down from Winnipeg!” Marla and I cheered! We were referenced from the stage! “Its a monologue. Mono. Logue.” was his response. He went on to say, “actually the Winnipeggers will probably appreciate this next story, it’s about the magician Doug Henning”. We cheered again and were reminded, “Mono. Logue”. Doug Henning did grow up in Winnipeg and actually attended Oakenwald school, where our daughter will be going in a couple of years. Small world.

The show ended with a sweet, poignant song called “Resist the Tide” by Cynthia Hopkins.  The standing ovation for Hodgman was immediate, sincere and sustained. Since we’ve been home, Marla has looked up the chords and can play it on her ukulele too. Here’s a clip of the song from the book launch back in November. Hodgman seemed impressed with the singing ability of our crowd. “Boy, The Prairie Home Companion sure trained you people well,” he said.

At the end of the night, the friendly talkative James Taylory guy next to me asked what we were doing now. “Um, I don’t know. We were going to see if we could get this book signed. Why?” The guy, who name I never even got, was inviting us to a house party in town (for a couple of beers). It wasn’t even his party, or his house for that matter. Marla and I looked at each other and kind of decided at the same time that we were done for the night. It had been a long drive down, and what if this guy had other, sinister intentions? I’m sure it would have been fine, but we both sort of saw the headlines in the next morning’s paper. “Two Canadians found murdered in rural Minnesota after attending a presentation by a minor tv personality”. We probably wouldn’t even have made front page. That would be reserved for Whitney. We thanked him for the invite and noticed that a small group was gathering at the base of the stage up front. Now was our chance!

Hey man. You wanna come out to this house party? It'll be cool and stuff and we can drink beer and it's in a white house but I don't have the address but I know how to get there and it'll be totally cool with the hosts if you come along and stuff." Exact transcript.

At this point of the night, Mr. Hodgman was finally out of character. The “deranged millionaire” persona was set aside for the moment, and he was just a regular, friendly guy meeting with his fans. The person ahead of us presented him with a signed copy of one of Guy Fieri’s cookbooks. It seemed like we were eavesdropping on the cusp of an ongoing series of antagonisms. “This is amazing, I’m really excited by this,” was John Hodgman’s response. Apparently this fan works for Guy Fieri and part of his job is to get him to sign memorabilia for fans, so it was no problem to get this book in front of him. The fact that is was inscribed “To John Hodgman” made it even more special. It seems there is some kind of weird secret feud between Fieri, Hodgman and cartoonist David Rees. Later, I tried to find more information about this online, but couldn’t. If there is a feud, it’s not well documented. In any case, obtaining a signed Guy Fieri book seemed to put John Hodgman in a really good mood. He even posted it to his tumblr account.

We told him we were the Winnipeggers, and he said he was really happy we took the time to drive down to see him. He said he’d like to come to Winnipeg, and that there were lots of places he’d like to go that he hasn’t been yet. It was a sweet thing to say. Marla finally got her picture, and I got my signed book. “To Trevor from Winnipeg.” it said. He also inscribed it with the hobo symbol for “Let’s take over the U.S. Government”, which is totally awesome. On the dust jacket for “That is All”, there is a quotation from Neil Gaiman. It says, “If you meet Hodgman on the road, kill him.” Sorry, Mr. Gaiman, we couldn’t do it. He showed us the sign of the hobo, and hobo bond trumps all. This is clearly the furthest I’ve gone to get a book signed, almost literally too far, as Hodgman pointed out, but it was also the most fun. John Hodgman proved to be “that little bit of light in all that darkness.”

Awaiting Judgment (no E). Note: the shoes are back on.

"It's time for hoboes to take over the United States government"

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Food, Fur and Fun: Our Weekend with John Hodgman Part 1.

Part 1: Things Fall Apart

“Do you want to go on an adventure?”

A few weeks ago I was clicking around online and I happened to be on John Hodgman’s site and was looking at his upcoming appearances, or “physical manifestations” as he calls them. He was going to be visiting the “3 Ms”: Madison, Milwaukee and Minneapolis. I noticed a fourth “M” on the list. Morris, Minnesota. The only Morris I had ever known was about a half hour south of Winnipeg, famous only for an annual rodeo. Where was Morris, MN? Apparently it is home to a satellite campus of the University of Minnesota and is a couple of  hours south-east of Fargo, ND. Six hours one way.

The wheels began to turn. I checked the date: Feb 11. My wife and I have to work 2 out of 3 Saturdays during the winter. Feb 11th fell on the free Saturday. The next morning I woke my wife up with the line, “Do you want to go on an adventure?” To my surprise, she was totally up for it. I shouldn’t be surprised, actually. She’s usually the adventurous one, not me. She’s the Tintin to my Captain Haddock, if you will. That didn’t come out right.

What about our daughter? A quick call to one of the grandmas was all it took. I called down to the Info Desk in the Student Centre and ordered a couple of tickets and less than a week later we were headin’ south.

Before we left I sent an excited tweet, and to my delight and surprise Mr. Hodgman himself replied:

I know it’s kind of silly, but I get such a thrill when a famous person, or a “semi-famous minor television personality” in this case, responds, retweets or follows me on Twitter. I’ve had responds from singer/songwriter Jann Arden, authors Joe Hill, Justin Cronin and Neil Gaiman, and I’m being followed by Tom Cruise (or at least his PR team, which is probably just as good). In fact last year Justin Cronin was going to be doing a reading and signing in Minneapolis and a part of me wanted to drive down for it. It was the middle of the week and I couldn’t make it happen and I sort of regret it. I didn’t want to let this new opportunity pass me by.

We loaded up the ol’ iPod with “Prairie Home Companion” and “Judge John Hodgman” podcasts as well as a healthy mix of Death Cab for Cutie, Arcade Fire, Norah Jones and Ron Sexsmith and we were off on a beautiful clear winter’s day. We stopped in Fargo for lunch at Culvers (Marla: it tastes like Kelekis!) and since Marla was so good-natured to accompany me on this “fool’s errand” that I was happy to oblige any side trips that she suggested. One such side trip was a visit to a yarn store in the south end of town. I don’t know anything about yarn, but I do know that there is a regularly scheduled event at my house called “knitknight” where supper is eaten, knitting and crocheting gets knitted and crocheted, and T.V. and/or movies are watched. I am the designated “ball roller”. I roll balls. I’m quite good, you should see me do it.

Anyway, Marla was in her element. She poked around at the merchandise and even asked the clerk for a bit of help on her current project that she just happened to have on her. I think part of the reason that Marla was so agreeable to this adventure was that she had 12 uninterrupted hours of knitting time in the car. That’s like a month of knitknights, easily! I absent-mindedly wandered through the store touching the various yarns. I didn’t realize I actually hand one in my hand when the clerk asked me if I needed any help. “Um, yeah.” Looking down at the bundle in my hand, “Do you think this would make a good hat?” She smiled and said, “Sure, but if softness matters to you, I’ve got some yarn that my husband really likes.” She led me to another section of the store and sure enough, this yarn felt noticeably softer. I was upsold!

We spent a full hour in this shop and when our purchases were being rung up, the clerk stuck our skeins of wool on an automatic ball roller. This thing will roll a perfect ball of yarn in a minute or two, no fuss, no tangles. I gazed at it with a mixture of admiration and jealousy. I was looking at the future, and the future didn’t include a role for me at knitknight.

We got into Morris at about 4 pm. John Hodgman was to take to the stage at 8 pm so we had some time. Our hotel, which online looked like the better of the two available, clearly had not withstood the scourge of time gracefully. Our only other option was the Super 8. Super 8’s can be a real mixed bag, but in Morris’ case, it looked brand new. Our hotel, although it sported a restaurant and swimming pool, neither one attracted us. The swimming pool was over-run by a kid’s birthday party. Apparently, the community can rent out the pool for events, and the hotel guests can just suck it, I guess. The restaurant was even worse. Marla described the smell as a mix of “wet feet and beef jerky”. She realized that the smell actually was wet feet and jerky, because apparently that’s what everyone was eating at the pool party next door. There was something creepy and exciting called the “Cougar Room” but we were too scared to go in. We decided to eat out.

Unfortunately, we never did find out what was in the "Cougar Room".

Hodgman, no E

What were our options? Morris is a town of about 5o00, and the student body of UMM is 2000, so the town felt like it was really the support system of the university and not much more. The main street had a couple of options. One was a “family restaurant” but there were no cars in the lot and the sign outside said “Cooks and Servers Wanted”. Next. The best option seemed like this little Italian bistro. As we approached the front door, I looked down the sidewalk at a group of three of four coming towards us. In the midst of them was John Hodgman. “Marla!” I whispered, “It’s him.” He and his group brushed past us and up to the front desk. Of course they had reservations and went right in. We asked how long it would be, and we were told that the next available table would be 7:45 p.m. This was 5:30. “You should get him to sign your book now. You may not get another chance!” Marla told me. Marla’s always the more outgoing one, and if it wasn’t for her I would never have met my hero Bono in 2001, but that’s another story. My book was out in the car. This wasn’t technically a book signing tour, and so I wasn’t sure if he would be available afterwards so this really was a golden opportunity. Yet, I always feel kinda douchy bothering someone who’s having supper or talking with other people privately. Even when I took Kenny Rogers to task for the decline in quality of Kenny Rogers’ Roasters, I waited until he was done eating in Moxies before approaching. (I know, another story for another time). I respect that famous people require and deserve quiet time too, and it seemed like John Hodgman was about to have a quiet supper with a few notables from the university.

However, my compulsion for collecting signed books got the better of me, and I ran out to the car to fetch my copy of “Areas of my Expertise”, Hodgman’s first book. I approached the table, but this is where I made a tactical mistake. Rather than approaching Mr. Hodgman directly, I went over to the guy who seemed to be in charge of the group. I limply asked “Do you think it would be okay if I asked Mr. Hodgman to sign my book?” He looked kinda nervous and asked me if I was coming to the show that night. “He might sign things afterwards,” was all he said. As far as I could tell, Hodgman was unaware of this brief interaction. His head was buried in the menu. I slunk away with my fanboy tail between my legs. I couldn’t even look my wife in the eye. “Let’s just go.”

Dejected and hungry, we still hadn’t found a place to eat. A promising coffee and sandwich shop across the street closed at 6. We tried a pizza place down a side street, but I thought I had walked into a safe-injection site. The place smelled of disinfectant and there didn’t seem to be any place to sit except for where this bearded homeless-looking guy was slumped. A place billing itself as a “bar and grill” was the only other place downtown. Rather than park and go in, Marla went to scope it out and I stayed in the car. She was gone exactly one minute before she came out shaking her head. Apparently this “bar and grill” place wasn’t so much as restaurant as it was a banquet hall and a wedding reception was just about to get underway. That LITERALLY left three places: McDonald’s, Subway and Pizza Hut. We both dismissed McDonald’s right away, we had burgers for lunch and plus, it was McDonald’s. I would have been happy with Subway, but Marla thought Pizza Hut the better choice. As we were seated and took stock of our situation, I asked her how we were doing for time. Her watch had stopped. At that moment, here we were, in a drafty pizza chain, reflecting on a perfectly squandered opportunity, with a broken wristwatch. It was the lowest point of the weekend so far.

Next time:

Part 2: Things Get Better

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