Hoda: Proud Southerner by Way of Egypt

Hoda Kotb (pronounced Hoe-duh Cot-bee) co-anchors the fourth hour of Today on NBC with the notorious Kathie Lee Gifford. Since partnering up four years ago, the sometimes awkward chemistry of the two ladies has been lampooned by Saturday Night Live, which only added to their popularity for the unscripted quirkiness that manifests itself during their 10AM show. I’ve lived in cable-free abodes since the show premiered, but it’s must-see TV for me when I stay in a hotel (or anywhere that has cable, for that matter). There are so many laugh-out-loud moments in each show that one wonders how or why so many talk shows stick to such a regulated script (and series of “safe” questions for guests). Sure, Kathie Lee puts both feet in her mouth every single show, but this honestly only serves to make Hoda look like more of the “straight guy” to KLG’s pratfalls. With that being said, I knew next to nothing about Hoda before reading this book. I happened upon it for $3 in an antique store the other day, and I couldn’t put it down until I was finished. It’s a relatively breezy book, but that’s what it was intended to be, given the title. Little did I suspect that Hoda is a Southern girl, and a very proud one at that.

Hoda was born to Egyptian-born parents who immigrated to America (Oklahoma, to be exact) before starting their family. Though they spent summers in Egypt (and one year living abroad due to her father’s career in oil), the Kotb parents brought up their three children as Americans first and Egyptians second. In fact, Hoda still only knows basic, universal Arabic; they were very much an English-speaking household growing up. Hoda talks a lot in the book about what it felt like to grow up in West Virginia (where the family later moved for her father’s job) being the only dark-skinned, bushy-haired (her term, not mine) child in the class. As progressive as her parents were, dating was still out of the question–Hoda actually covertly met up with her prom date at a 7-11 since her parents forbade her to attend the dance. It’s experiences like these, though, that Hoda says she now embraces, and which made her the open-minded person she is today. Being of Middle Eastern descent, she was a shoo-in for many war stories that the network needed to be covered at the drop of a hat. This, too, is something she embraces. Chapter after chapter of her book are of her regaling the reader with experiences abroad that most of us only wish or imagine we could have. Obviously some of the war assignments she got were dangerous, but she learned to adapt to each locale she was assigned to for stories. I won’t spoil her anecdotes for those who might actually want to read the book.

Another thing I learned about Hoda is that she survived breast cancer and a messy divorce, both in the same year (2007). Instead of being bitter or throwing herself a pity party, she claims that the simultaneous tragedies almost cancelled one another out. She knew she had to survive them both, and she did. Having been a news anchor in New Orleans for several years during the 90s, Hoda voluntarily covered the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. She says her heart hurt more for those people during that situation than it ever did for herself two years later. I’m not sure many people could honestly say that, but one can tell when they read the book and hear about what she witnessed after Katrina that she really means it. She also covered the aftermath of the tsunami and goes into great detail about finding the fine-yet-blurry line between conducting spontaneous, sympathetic interviews with disaster survivors and delivering said interviews to the network impossibly fast (“like yesterday,” as she puts it).

Following are some noteworthy quotables from Hoda. Another thing I like about her is that she writes just the way she talks on air–very unassuming and with her sense of humour always in tact. She’s also the first one to thank her co-writer on the book, Jane Lorenzini, which I also admire. So here’s a hodge-podge of Hoda-isms (and clearly I learned nothing from so liberally quoting writers, which is what got me a B on my senior English thesis two years ago):

“Rarely do any of us get the exact medicine we need at the exact moment we need it.” (104)

“When I got off the plane, a jazz band was playing in the airport, each musician smiling and dressed in bright colors. A heavyset woman with long, Crystal Gayle hair came running up to me. ‘Hoda, is that yeeeeeewwwwwww? Ahm Gail Guidry and ahm here to greet ya!’ (Insert big bear hug here.)” (On her arrival to New Orleans for her job interview, 114)

“Living [in New Orleans] helped me understand myself better. It made me realize that imperfect is perfectly comfortable to me. Whether it’s a city or my apartment, I feel most at home when things are somewhat flawed.” (118)

“You will never regret taking the high road, as hard as it may be to do. Your dignity and class are to be treasured–try to maintain both. […] Take things one day at a time. Try not to look too far ahead. There is nothing productive about wishing time forward, to a place you can’t control. Do a good job each day and expect bad days, too. […] Take care of yourself. Be healthy and wise and don’t forget to smile. […] Don’t forget to thank all the people who love, support, and help you. And be aware that they can never feel the depth of your pain, just as you can’t know theirs. […] Do something for someone else. Our burdens feel lighter when we help carry someone else’s for a day or even an hour. Forgive. It will make you stronger and lighter. We don’t have to forget, but to forgive is freeing.” (On getting through tough times, 181-82)

“He said, ‘What is wrong with you? Breast cancer is a part of you. Like going to college, working at NBC, getting married. I’m going to give you some advice and then I’ll let you go to sleep. Don’t hog your journey. It’s not just for you. Think of how many people you could have helped on the plane ride home. You can take your business, shove it deep in your pockets, and take it to your grave. Or you can help someone. It’s your choice.'” (On the advice a random guy sitting next to her on the plane from Ireland to the US gave her, 184-85)

“If you forget about what happens in your life, you often go back to the way you used to live it. Like after someone dies and you say, ‘I’m going to be different now. I’m going to do more of this and less of that.’ But pretty soon, you’re just you again. That will be harder for me to do and it will be harder for me to forget the lessons. I have an army of people reminding me all the time, ‘This is who you are now! And don’t forget it!'” (On surviving breast cancer and becoming an unintentional spokesperson for it after her story aired on ‘Today’, 194)

“I couldn’t believe it. He acted like he got a full night’s sleep, when I know he slept for maybe two hours. I said to him, ‘How do you do it?’ He answered through that huge smile, ‘Let me tell you why I’m happy. It’s because my dad drove a city bus, and I get to come to 30 Rock every single day and work.’ That told me all I need to know about Al Roker. Done.” (On Al Roker’s positive attitude, 251)

“Here’s another little gem I’ve unearthed in recent years. You can’t resolve everything in your life. Stop with the four-hour phone calls and lunches, burning through hours dissecting a stubborn issue. I think it’s okay to tuck some things away and live your life. Stop wishing for a resolution! Life’s not perfect. Some loose ends may never get trimmed up and tidied. I believe that and boy, it’s freeing.” (263)

I couldn’t have expressed any of those thoughts better myself. I might add that Hoda’s father died of a heart attack when she was a junior at Virginia Tech. Her longing that he would’ve been able to see her journalism career progress over the last 28 years seems to be her only regret in life. The positive outlook of this woman floors me, no joke. Speaking of jokes, she jokes an awful lot in the book about working with Kathie Lee, but since Kathie Lee makes so much fun of her on the air, it all evens out. I wanted to end with the quote Hoda used to dedicate the book, because it’s one of the best dedications I’ve ever read:

“‘If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.’ This book is dedicated to anyone, like me, who’s made God bust a gut.”

Happy Labour Day weekend to all–safe travels & happy cook-outs!


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