My Hamilton Obsession

“I am not throwing away my shot!”

Hamilton portrait
Alexander Hamilton portrait by John Trumbull 1806, detail. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

I became obsessed with the musical Hamilton when it was released on Disney+ a few months into the pandemic. Given the lockdown and all, I watched it to my heart’s content, surely annoying my husband with my frequent references to it and my need for him to declare it the exception to his steadfast assertion that he dislikes musicals.

The more I watched it, the more some lines came to mind in all manner of situations, from personal decisions and trials to national controversies and events.

Thus, dearest readers (drum roll in the background), before my Hamilton fever entirely subsides, I hereby present to you a few of the lines I collected for our joint pondering pleasure.

“Every action’s an act of creation.”

This line grounds me and gives me a feeling of self-importance. Whaddaya know, every one of my behaviors— from the unconscious and routine to the most complex and premeditated — creates something!

When I breathe, I take in oxygen, let out carbon dioxide and keep my body alive. Kind of important what I create -my life’s sustenance, no less- by merely breathing, no?

Our consumer behaviors contribute to global, local and individual trends. How do you affect the environment, the local economy, and your own future through your actions as a consumer?

Of course, there are also deliberate acts of creation. Teachers create lesson plans. Writers create essays, novels and copy. Chefs create dishes. Weight lifters create muscle mass. Legislators create laws and pass bills where some gain and others lose.

We are all creators.

“If you stand up for nothing Burr, what will you fall for?”

What do I stand for really?

Not to toot my own horn (ok, a little bit to toot my own horn), but I will say I strive to lead a coherent life. In general, I stand for broad themes: life, liberty and the pursuit of virtues, purpose and fulfillment.

But is there actually anything I would fall for, as in dying for?

Honestly, I can’t think of any idea or goal I would die for, as in taking up arms like Hamilton and his fellow revolutionaries did to achieve independence from the British.

However, I would certainly die for my children any day. I desperately hope I would be brave like the Flight 93 passengers if I knew what they knew when they decided to storm the cockpit on 9/11.

“Another immigrant coming up from the bottom.”

As a US citizen who immigrated to the United States 230 years after Hamilton took the voyage from the Caribbean island of Nevis to New York, I can relate. Unlike Hamilton, I didn’t come alone or by boat, but I did come with a dream.

To this day, thousands of people keep arriving on US soil with hopes and dreams, a great deal of energy, and a readiness to make sacrifices and persevere. Most native-born Americans seldom think about immigrants in this way nowadays. They should!

“Raise a glass to freedom, something they can never take away, no matter what they tell you.”

This line always makes me think, immediately, of this quote from Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning:

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Hamilton and his pals fought for political freedom, not spiritual or psychological freedom. Ultimately, inner freedom is beyond the reach of any tyrant.

And here, I can’t help but bring up the poem Invictus, by William Ernest Henley, which I just have to include in full, as it expresses the idea of inner freedom and self-possession in a sublimely moving way:

Out of the night that covers me,   
  Black as the Pit from pole to pole,   
I thank whatever gods may be   
  For my unconquerable soul.   

In the fell clutch of circumstance 
  I have not winced nor cried aloud.   
Under the bludgeonings of chance   
  My head is bloody, but unbowed.   

Beyond this place of wrath and tears   
  Looms but the Horror of the shade, 
And yet the menace of the years   
  Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.   

It matters not how strait the gate,   
  How charged with punishments the scroll,   
I am the master of my fate:
  I am the captain of my soul.

“I am not throwing away my shot.”

This, of course, is one of the stickiest lines in the whole show. It’s a great motivational mantra.

One can look it at in many ways. Say you landed a job interview for a great position. You have a shot! Prepare well for it and the job may be yours. Fail to prepare and you’re straight up throwing away your shot.

It doesn’t mean there won’t be other shots for you, whether for a job, relationship, trip, or visit with a loved one. But the more you take a shot when one comes around, the more fully you will live.

At life itself, we only get one shot. That’s a scary thought, don’t you think?

“Oceans rise; empires fall.”

We sure hear what we are predisposed to hearing. Here are the thoughts that come to mind when I hear this line:

Climate change is slowly but surely causing oceans to rise.

All empires have fallen. When will the US empire be considered to have fallen?

I can’t help it. I’m awfully worried about climate change, so every time I hear King George sing “Ocean’s rise,” I’m alarmed: “OMG, oceans are rising. We’re running out of time. Our planet is doomed!”

Whether or not the US is declining as an empire is not something I lose sleep over. To my mind, the US doesn’t need to be the world’s greatest superpower to have a positive influence in the world.

Still, the line causes me to wonder: What type of leadership is the US exercising? Which countries would replace the US?

A lot to think about as a result of pondering four words from a Hamilton song!

“Life [death, love] doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints.”

Do you believe in karma? I don’t. At least not so much. Here are some reasons why:

  • Too many awful people get to be powerful and rich.
  • Good people get sick and die young.
  • Most parents love their children no matter what, whether their kids end up being criminals or model citizens.
  • Many people live with trauma and continue to love people who’ve done terrible things to them.
  • Narcissists may be loved and elevated by many.
  • Amazing people are sometimes unable to find romantic partners.
  • Innocent folks are sentenced to death now and then.

We don’t necessarily deserve what we get. We may have the freedom to take a stand or to decide our attitude toward life’s events, but what we get is, to a significant extent, beyond our control.

In closing…

The only reason Hamilton was released on Disney+ was the emergence of an abhorrent virus known as COVID-19 which decidedly “doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints.”

As such, it reminds us of the fragility of the human condition, of the importance of taking a stand when necessary, of our freedom regardless of circumstance, and of not throwing away our one shot at life.

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What I Think about When I See a Homeless Person

That could’ve been me

I live in a medium-sized upscale town with no visible homelessness, so I don’t often come across homeless people.

When I write homeless, by the way, I mean people you might see in the streets of big cities like New York, where I go now and again. Unless you’re chauffeured door to door in NYC and refrain from looking out the window, you will inevitably see a good many homeless individuals.

I’m talking about humans sitting or lying on cardboard, who roll carts or schlep big bags around, and look like they haven’t slept well or showered in weeks.

When I pass them, I feel awful, even though I’ve heard a small number “choose” this life. I guess it’s true, yet I’m certain the proportion is minute. I can’t imagine what it would take to give up a reliable daily hot shower or access to a clean bathroom for an extended amount of time.

I also don’t feel at all optimistic about their prospects. How can anyone in such a dire situation possibly get back on their feet unless they get a whole lot of help? I mean, I had a charmed childhood and have faced setbacks and made stupid mistakes in my adult life from the comfort of a safe home and it’s still been mighty hard to course correct.

And so, when I see a homeless person, I also feel a mix of fear and relief.

After all, were it not for the great luck I’ve had in life, this or that homeless woman could’ve been me, and this or that homeless youth could’ve been my child.

What causes homelessness?

“Insufficient income and lack of affordable housing are the leading causes of homelessness,” according to the National Homelessness Law Center. Other important causes include mental illness, substance abuse, and domestic violence.

Insufficient income? Check. I’ve faced periods of insufficient income. But I’ve had the luxury of an enviable safety net every time. I’m talking about a bit of saving and, above all, inter-generational wealth and support.

My father inherited his parents’ rendering business and was able to grow it. He worked hard (as many other people do!), made sound business decisions, and accumulated enough money to give his seven children not only an excellent education but also a generous financial gift in the form of a house or apartment when each of us left home as adults. Talk about spoiled!

This was in my country of birth, Venezuela, which we chose to leave for a couple of reasons, one of them being the economic and political chaos that took hold. Still, we arrived in the US, (Connecticut specifically) with the huge advantage of a top-notch education and enough money in the bank to pay good immigration lawyers.

Several members of my family, including my parents, also moved to Connecticut, and I’ve relied on them to navigate not only financial setbacks but also difficult health situations. I’m talking about mental illness, which my siblings and I are genetically predisposed to, so much so five of us have essentially “come down” with severe depression at different points in our lives.

I just can’t imagine living indefinitely with depression. At some point, I almost certainly would’ve resorted to self-medicating with alcohol, addictive drugs, or whatnot. At some point, I would’ve had to quit work.

Luckily, I haven’t needed to. I’ve benefitted from my family’s support and experience with this illness. I also have a teaching job that provides good health insurance.

Yep. I am a privileged human. I have faced my share of trials but never lacked emotional or economic support. And so, when I see a homeless person, the thought always crosses my mind:

Were it not for all this good fortune, that could very well have been me.
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