The Summer of Hamilton
There is so much I could say about the past six months, about how we gave up an idealized version of family life in favor of a doable version of family life, about how the pedestrian pressures of Palo Alto exhausted me to the point I thought I might be clinically depressed, about how it came to my attention that Graham and I often find ourselves in over our heads raising three children, or about how frequently and humbly I've needed to ask for help and then ask for help again. That all has been true, and it is also true that things are much better now (PHEW). The biggest impact has come from finding help and support, but I must say, the Spencers have also been lifted up by Hamilton, the musical. 2016 will definitely go down as the summer of Hamilton.
It started with an image that seemed at once typical and a bit worrisome from a parent’s perspective. Gwendolyn, on the verge of turning twelve, was on her phone a lot. At the beach she sat in the shade, earbuds plugged in place, those white plastic threads skimming her shoulders as they tethered her to some unknown elsewhere. For hours. Everyday. In all fairness, she was not totally hypnotized, she produced many drawings while she was attached to her phone, but since she is my first child, the child who will break me into raising a teenager, I kept an overly vigilant watch. The phone seemed a likely pitfall, and in other ways was already proving itself to be.
I worried whenever I saw her on her phone. Was this too much time? Should I cut her off? How much was normal? Until one day in early July; it was hot and sunny. We were in our bathing suits walking on a path toward the beach. Gwendolyn said mom, “Listen to this.” And then she started to play a song from Hamilton for me. It was “Guns and Ships.” I knew she liked the music from Hamilton, that her friend Gracie had introduced her to it, and even that she listened to it a lot. But because her phone life was such a private cocoon, I had no idea how much she was listening to the score.
As Gwendolyn played me the song, she sang along to all of of the lyrics in “Guns and Ships.” For those of you who haven’t heard the music from Hamilton yet, the words in “Guns and Ships,” spew like machine gun fire. I’ve read that to perform the song, the singer must pronounce 6.3 words per second. In general, the pace of word flow in Hamilton overall is so fast that if the show were to be performed at a typical pace for a musical it would play for over four hours, instead of the two and a half hours it normally runs. Learning the lyrics to “Guns and Ships” was an impressive feat, evidence of passion and an inestimable amount of practice. Hamilton. The bulk of Gwendolyn’s phone time had been spent listening to Hamilton.
From that point on, Gwendolyn took charge of music during car rides. We listened to “The Schuyler Sisters,” on repeat for the first few weeks. Then “Helpless.” We faked formality along with the cast as we learned “Farmer Refuted.” None of us learned the lyrics to “Guns and Ships,” quite like Gwendolyn had, but we followed her lead, and after a spring during which the girls had been more at one another than ever, the sisterly tension shifted gears into friendly jousts over which Schuyler Sister would be the best to play when they all made it to Broadway. Short answer—it’s not Peggy.
This is how I end up walking down Bryant street the other morning listening to “One Last Time.” In this number George Washington takes a private moment with Hamilton to share the news that there has been a shift in power in his administration. Jefferson, Hamilton’s nemesis, has resigned from the cabinet in order to run for President, and Washington will not oppose him. The song plots the emotional journey Hamilton and Washington make together as they draft one last public address together.
One last time.
Relax have a drink with me.
One last time.
Let’s take a break tonight
And then we’ll teach them how to say goodbye,
To say goodbye.
You and I.
In Palo Alto the sky is blue over head, and for the first time there is a bit of fall chill in the air. Here I am, the person in the phone cocoon, earbuds plugged in place, Hamilton also my elsewhere. Chris Jackson’s clear brass voice sings one last time, as I walk past the familiar homes in my neighborhood—the tan stucco, the tudor, the house with the giant briard whose barking always startles me, the white home with the terra-cotta roof. When I pass this last one, I experience an unexpected wisp of grief, the living room window of the terracottas-roofed house is now empty. It used to give view to a table decorated with a collection of model hands. They were a bit gothic and odd and at the same time quite beautiful. I had only recently learned that the house belonged to a hand surgeon and had started to think fondly of the home as one that belonged to a certain kind of artist, even though I had never met the owner in person. This summer they moved and the house has been empty. The hands and their owner passed out of my life without fanfare.
Which might account for the fact of my tears. Because it seemed for no reason, but on that block, as I listened to Chris Jackson play George Washington I cried. I couldn’t place the reason, but looking back I wonder if the experience of a small loss was hinting at the imminence of more important losses to come. The empty window. My little girl disappearing. The final months of a presidency that has both meant something to me and has felt inextricably linked to the arrival of my first child.
When I got home I looked up that final address that Washington and Hamilton wrote together.
It is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment to it, accustoming yourself to think and speak of it as of the palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned; and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts.
When Washington points out the “immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness,” I return to July 2004. Gwendolyn is four weeks old. The incision across my belly is a hard ridge. I have been visited by the lactation specialist three times for a cracked nipple that won’t heal. For the first time in my life, the television is on all day. Everyday. I’m embarrassed to admit, this is why I end up watching the Democratic National Convention for the first time in my life. I am moved by the young senator from Illinois.
Tonight, we gather to affirm the greatness of our nation not because the height of our skyscrapers, or the power of our military, or the size of our economy; our pride is based on a very simple premise, summed up in a declaration made over two hundred years ago: “ We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." That this is the true genius of American, a faith in simple dreams, an insistence on small miracles; that we can tuck in our children at night and know that they are fed and clothed and safe from harm; that we can say what we think, write what we think, without hearing a sudden knock on the door; that we can have an idea and start our own business without paying a bribe; that we can participate in the political process without fear of retribution; and that our votes will be counted—or at least, most of the time.
When he finishes his speech, I think, I’d like to see this man run for President. This might be the only substantive thought I hold in my head all summer. That summer that I never left the house and watched television all day.
And so here we are together. The single thought shared by so many, I’d like to see this man run for President, is a notion that has run its course. My daughter is twelve, and it is time for this country to re-invent itself again. Just like in 1796. Just like in 2004 and 2008 and 2012. I wonder how we will do it this time. Gwendolyn is twelve, straddling her own epochs, the music from Hamilton humming in her blood. What history is she about to witness?
I'm not sure how to end this post, except to say, Terence Crutcher, an unarmed black man was shot on September 16th walking to his stalled vehicle in Tulsa, Oklahoma. If you haven't watched the videos, you must.
The notion of “elsewhere” was adapted from the essay, “On or About,” from the book Changing the Subject by Sven Birkerts.