On July 3, 2020, Disney released Hamilton on its streaming service, Disney+.
By July 7 I had watched it 5 and a half times.
So, yes, ok, one could write me off as yet another semi-obsessed #Hamilfan. And, to a certain degree, I am. (a three-hour musical 5.5 times in 4 days, amiright?)
But there was also something deeper existing below my Lin-Manuel Miranda worship. I’ve been trying to get my head around it for months. All while wandering around the RV humming “Satisfied” under my breath.
History is Relative
I’ve been watching the “discussion” around Hamilton since I was introduced to the musical by my nephew in 2016. For every 100 fans, it seems, there is one totally disgruntled critic. Some have hated the fact that non-white characters are not featured in any way in the show. (Mind you, all major characters are played by persons of color.) Others get pissed that LMM has written a story that “glorifies” the founding fathers into larger-than-life titans.
My gut reaction is this: get over yourselves, guys, It’s a musical. LMM was under no obligation to spin the storyline to fit your personal desire for a narrative. Rice and Weber included Che Guevara in Evita though the two never met in real life. It is theater. If you don’t like it, write your own damn musical.
But, speaking as an amateur historian, these critics fail to grasp the concept that ALL history is revisionist, by nature. “History is written by the victors” as the saying goes. No, you are not seeing a musical about Cato, Hercules Mulligan’s personal slave who was integral to the revolutionary intelligence operation. But you’re also not seeing a “true” depiction of Aaron Burr, or George Washington, or even Hamilton himself, for goodness’ sake. You’re watching LMM’s interpretation of Alex Chernow’s book about Hamilton which, though written by a reputable historian, still can only be based on the sources who bothered to write things down, and is further colored by those authors’ perceptions.
Oddly, this is something that the musical nails right on the head, frequently throughout its length – we have no control over our legacy, because it is created ultimately by thse who remember us.
And this is the burr under my saddle, the thing that kept me watching the musical over and over again while doing other things: who, exacly, will be my “biograhers?”
“Curious is the trap-maker’s art,” intones a line from the video game Darkest Dungeon, “his efficacy unwitnessed by his own eyes.”
So, too, is the legacy after our lives – we have no clue what we are leaving behind us.
A legacy is a curious thing. For many people, their contribution to life will be their families – the sons and daughters that survive when they are gone. Others write books, or build edifices, or, like LMM, write musicals that people will probably still be humming along to a hundred years from now.
Hamilton stops me in my tracks because it leaves me with serious questions about what I am leaving behind me.
For years after my initial diagnosis with epilepsy I suffered from suicidal ideation – I wanted quite seriously to kill myself. My quality of life was horrible, and every good thing in my life had been ripped away from me, including my ability to communicate. I managed to push through it, but my family and my therapist can tell you that at times it was a very close thing.
See, it wasn’t that I thought that I was unimportant to those that love me. It is that I thought I wasn’t important enough.
I walked up to the abyss and stared down many times. It wasn’t until I was challenged to “push the edges of the box” as I’ve recorded here before that I began to come around.
Now, having survived past my 50th birthday (which I was originally told I wouldn’t see), I began to wonder about what lies forward from here. What, exactly, can I say I am leaving behind me when I am no longer here?
The Comparison Fallacy
Like most of us, I tend to derive most of my self-worth from comparison to those around me. Oh, we say we don’t, but in the end we do – how else can one evaluate ones’ existence as a human being without using other humans as a yardstick? I appear to be a towering intellect when compared to Delilah, my dog. (Though I have owned one dog that was much smarter than I was.)
I spent the first half of my adult life trying to compare myself to the titans of my childhood – my father the scientist, my uncle the master musician, and my father’s Dad the war hero. If I could manage to follow in their footsteps, I thought, I’d be doing ok.
But I never became a father, quickly turning that comparison into a non-starter. Then, in my 30s, epilepsy struck, and I found myself trying to be smarter than the average bedpost, and failing the comparison more often than not.
By the time I got relatively stable again, I was in my 40s. I still required near-constant care from my wife to overcome my issues with memory and critical thinking. (These thankless tasks she still performs to this day.) But I was able to begin evaluating again – what, exactly, was I bringing to the table as a person? What value, ultimately, was I providing to the planet I had decided to stick around on after overcoming my tendencies toward self-destruction?
The Artists Quandry
I tried so many things. I tried being an advocate for others with mental disabilities. Since I could not have children of my own I tried being a foster parent. I worked hard at being a better family member than I had been for the first few decades of my life.
Ultimately, I had to settle on that most vacuous of pastimes – art. I was no longer a musician, but I slowly taught myself to write. For a period I wrote every single day, just to prove to myself that I could. This evolved into this blog, which turned into ghostwriting, which eventually turned into creating a novel.
I should have been proud of my accomplishment. Instead, it left me grasping after how inadequate I felt for writing something that was “not important.”
And herein lies the problem – how does anyone determine what art is “important?”
Back to the Lin Manuel Miranda problem – he’s already produced two Tony Award-winning musicals, won Grammys, and a Pulitzer Prize.
Homeboy is TEN YEARS YOUNGER than me. Admittedly, I had about a decade in there in which it was a serious accomplishment to finish a sentence but, still – LMM was 28 when his first Tony-award-winning musical came out.
At 28 I was a lead singer in a cover band, racking up astronomical equipment bills and bar tabs.
So, even without the handicap angle, obviously, I was not making anywhere close to the same kind of contributions.
Running Out of Time
A common theme through Hamilton is that the main character is always doing things as if he was “running out of time.” – resulting in his huge volume of correspondence, political theory, and economic designs which still form the underpinnings of our national economy today.
Now, I am not trying to say that I should be producing a legacy anything like one of our founding fathers, or even one of the greatest artists of our generation. (fight me.)
But, it is quite sobering to look at one’s volume of work and see…not much. One novel and a handful of articles, mostly about video games and weight loss.
Thus, I am haunted by Hamilton – if LMM quits today, his legacy is secure.
if I quit today, I am not sure anyone beyond my immediate family will even notice I am gone.
I say this not in an effort to receive “attaboys” from anyone – but, instead, as a real challenge to myself in my current life.
My sole goal for over ten years now has been to live to see my fiftieth birthday. An insensitive and probably idiotic neurologist told me early on in my treatment that “clustered partial complex seizures originating in the temporal lobe” (my personal diagnosis) were essentially a death sentence. And that I most likely would not live to see 50.
So, mission accomplished, right? Except…I’ve lived to see fifty just for the sake of being half a century old, I guess. My “bucket list” was essentially empty until a few weeks ago. “What will I leave behind me?” had never even entered into the equation.
Until seven months of mentally chewing on five (and a half) viewings of Hamilton, that is.
Get Out Of My Head, Lin-Manuel Miranda,