Personal Pieces postsThursday June 29, 2017
DUN duh-nuh-nuh-nuh DUN DUN...
It was January 20, 2016, my birthday, and I was checking out social media, as we do, when I was distracted by a trending headline about director Spike Lee and #OscarsSoWhite. I kind of rolled my eyes. OK, what did he say now? Turns out Spike's thoughts on the controversy were similar to mine—that the lack of black artists up for awards is less an Academy problem than an industry problem. The roles needed to be there in the first place for the Academy to honor them. “We need to be in the room where it happens,” he said, and the writer helpfully added that this was an allusion to the new hit musical “Hamilton,” then even more helpfully included a link to a cast member singing that song on YouTube.
Me: Oh right. That hip-hop musical about the first treasury secretary, with people of color playing the founding fathers. Sounds dreadful.
But I clicked on the link.
First viewing: “Hey, this is pretty good.” Second viewing: “Holy crap, this is good.” I searched for more on “Hamilton,” then came across a 2009 White House video of some guy rapping about Hamilton and was blown away again. That guy, it turned out, was Lin-Manuel Miranda, who created it all. Did iTunes have the Broadway soundtrack? It did! I listened to several songs before downloading the entire thing as a birthday present to myself. I figured, while I probably wouldn't listen to all the songs, there was enough there to make it at least a little bit worthwhile.
Well, I did listen to all of the songs. Over and over again. Ask my wife. For six months it was about all I listened to. I listened to it like I was running out of time. My world would never be the same.
I searched for tickets to the Broadway show, too, but they didn't have anything for like a year. I probably should've tried harder. Then Miranda and other members of the original cast left the show in July. That door was closed now; it would never be open again.
But two weekends ago, in Chicago, I finally got to see the show.
My sister got tickets for her family and my wife made sure one of those was for me. So even though I'd just spent two and a half weeks in Europe, I packed up again and headed to Chicago.
I didn't expect to be blown away. It wasn't the original cast, it wasn't on Broadway, and I had the whole musical already in my head. What could they give me that I didn't already have? What could they tell me that I didn't already know? Mostly I was just interested in seeing how the tone of this one differed from the tone of the original.
But I was blown away. After the show, my sister reposted on social media Joe Posnanski's great essay about seeing “Hamilton” on Broadway last year with his daughter, and it includes this graf:
The thing about seeing Hamilton RIGHT NOW at its peak moment is that even before it begins, the entire theater is filled with wonder. Every single person would rather be here than anywhere else in the world. As a sportswriter, I often feel that sort of energy at the biggest events, at the Masters or the Super Bowl or the Olympics, but it's even more pronounced in this theater. People look at each other with the same wide-eyed expression: “Can you believe we're here?”
That was the feeling in Chicago. The crowd was buzzing, smiling “I can't believe I'm here” smiles, and taking turns taking photos near the stage. As the house lights dimmed and the opening chords to the opening number played (DUN duh-nuh-nuh-nuh DUN DUN), unsuppressed squeals of delight were heard. And when Daniel Breaker as Burr asks “What's your name, man?” and Miguel Cervantes as Hamilton responds, “Alexander Hamilton,” the crowd burst into applause.
The talent on the stage was amazing. The dancers rocked. Alexander Gemignani took the familiar King George songs and made them funny again. He just owned the stage. He brought the house down multiple times and viewed us all with the disdain of an 18th century half-mad monarch. Loved Chris De'Sean Lee as Lafayette (less his Jefferson, which felt over-the-top), and Ari Afsar as Eliza. Meanwhile, the actress playing Angelica, Aubin Wise, has a combination of high cheekbones and dimples that seems decidedly unfair to the rest of us. You should get one or the other, not both. Plus she has the pipes. Get this: she was the understudy.
But I was particularly impressed by Breaker as Burr. Right from the start, right from the “Aaron Burr, Sir” song, you not only heard him singing but saw him acting. His reactions to this pestering kid seemed just right: putting Hamilton at a distance, then being won over by him (kinda sorta), then the rivalry and the seeming constant betrayal—until the big one during the election of 1800. Also the pain of realizing he was, and would always be, the villain in our history.
That's the thing that was surprising in Chicago: feeling the pain of being Aaron Burr. In the original, Miranda plays a sympathetic, sensitive Hamilton who wears his heart on his sleeve the way Miranda often does. He's all big sensitive eyes and overwhelming dramatic emotion. Cervantes' Hamilton is colder and more ruthless. It feels truer to the historical man but also less dramatic. We care less for Hamilton here, and more for Burr. I didn't cry when Hamilton's son died or when they sang “It's Quiet Uptown,” as I had done numerous time at home listening to the soundtrack; but I nearly teared up when Burr realizes the tragedy of his life. “Was I supposed to care so much about Aaron Burr?” my sister asked after the show. It was the play turned upside down. It makes me wonder what other variations there might be to this story that has lived with me for 18 months, and that I thought I knew so well.
Our Denmark/Netherlands Trip: By the Numbers
- Days gone: 18
- Countries visited: 2. Three if you count the Charles de Gaulle Airport.
- Lonely Planet guidebooks brought: 2. But we really could've used one for the Charles de Gaulle Airport.
- Minutes to make our connecting flight at CDG: 70
- Minutes by which we missed our connecting flight: 5
- Minutes subsequently spent at CDG: 480
- Museums visited in 18 days: 17
- Museums visited alongside field trips of howling school kids: 16
- Churches/kirkes/kerks entered: 20
- Towers climbed: 6
- Paintings by Dutch masters gazed at: 142
- Van Goghs seen: 69
- Canal tours taken: 1. Copenhagen.
- Visits to the Little Mermaid: 2. Once from the canal side.
- Visits to Tivoli: 2. Once in the evening.
- Visits to castles: 8
- Visits to Shakespearean castles: 1. Hamlet's, yo.
- Number of Yankee caps seen on the heads of Europeans who think “NY” is “like the rebel image”: 99
- Number who know the Yankees are the richest team in baseball: 0
- Polish Carlsberg workers with whom we debated whose country's president was the more embarrassing while sharing an outdoor table at a charming pizza place in the former meatpacking district of Copenhagen: 3
- Number of nodded concessions that, while the Polish president was an embarrassment, his idiocy didn't affect the world: 5
- Number of times I crossed the street in advance of looming bikes, cars or trams, or just before the light turned red, and Patricia missed the cue, and we wound up staring at each other from opposite sides of the street: 212
- Number of times we consulted Google Maps and then went in the wrong direction anyway: 53
- Times we visited Hope in Copenhagen for breakfast in our five mornings there: 2
- Mornings when we thought, “You know, we really should've just gone to Hope again”: 3
- Number of times in the morning I thought, “Wow, Danish people are really good-looking”: 4
- Number of times in the late afternoon I thought, “OK, maybe not”: 4
- Number of times I was absolutely turned on by women in Amsterdam: 24
- Number of times this happened in the red light district: 0
- Number of scheduled cyling days on our bike-barge trip along the IJsselmeer in the Netherlands: 6
- Actual days spent biking due to weather: 3
- Number of times we had more trouble finding the boat in the new port than we did making the actual journey: 3
- Number of cyclists on the trip: 19
- Number of Pacific Northwesterners: 8
- Old-style windmills seen: 8
- Wind-energy turbines seen: 211
- Times I thought of Trump because of this: 211
- Pannekoeken eaten: 5
- Cappuccinos drunk: 27
- Frites: 8
- Netherlanders impressed that I pronounced “bedankt” with the “t” at the end: 15
- Number of tickets we tried to buy with credit cards/debit cards in train-station kiosks: 12
- Number of times the credit card/debit card was rejected: 12
- Number of times the cards were rejected elsewhere: 0
- Postcards sent: 36
- Postcards bought but never sent: 111
- Refrigerator magnets bought: 12
- Text messages warning us that we were about to exceed, or had already exceeded, or were hopelessly in excess of, our international data package: 4
- Plane hours home: 9
- Money spent: TBA
Here's a story from last week about the difficulty of overcoming your true nature. Also about the idiocy of construction companies even in rural areas.
A week ago Sunday, Patricia and I were driving down to Rochester, Minn., for a Monday/Tuesday appointment at the Mayo Clinic. We were driving my mother's old SUV and as we left the Twin Cities it had about a quarter tank left. I'm a pretty risk-averse guy—whenever the tank gets below the quarter-mark I usually fill it up. But here, as we drove down 52 South, I only saw gas stations on the other side of the highway. I kept waiting for one on our side. I figured: I can handle this. I'll subsume my true nature for the sake of efficiency.
And I kept waiting. And waiting.
Soon it was just cornfields everywhere, and the gas gauge was nearing empty. So when the next exit offered “gas” I went for it. Again, it was on the other side of the freeway. Worse, the station wasn't even visible. I drove a bit. Nothing. Where was it? A mile ahead? Two? I said, “Screw this” and got back on 52 South.
Then the gas gauge light went on, which never happens to me.
It would soon be dark, and I didn't like the idea of running out of gas in the middle of nowhere. No matter what, I thought, I'll get gas at the next exit.
That one looked promising. Near the town of Zumbrota, I could actually see the gas station, a SuperAmerica, on the other side of the highway. So we took the exit, drove over the bridge, and ... ran into an orange construction barrier. The road to the gas station was completely blocked. We could only go right or left: right was the exit ramp for 52 North, while left was the entrance ramp back onto 52 North. I shook my head. I looked around more carefully. The gas station was about 100 feet away but there was no way to get to it. It was that classic American dilemma: couldn't get there from here.
“Is this completely ...?”
“It is,” Patricia said.
I sighed. “Any thoughts?”
“Maybe try the other side of the freeway? There's a McDonald's there. Maybe there's something else, too?”
But there wasn't, so we returned to the construction sign, thinking we'd simply missed something. We hadn't. I parked next to the sign and got out.
“I'll see if I can just buy a canister of gasoline,” I said.
In the evening light, I walked down a steep hill full of spongy grass and into the SA. Two girls were chatting behind the counter.
“Did you know that the construction over there is blocking anyone from that side from entering this place?” I asked. They looked up, then craned their necks to the construction site. No, they didn't know. “So is there another way to get here?” I asked. The older girl mentioned driving further north about a mile and coming in from the eastern side, but I imagined myself getting hopelessly lost that way.
“So ... Do you have any canisters for sale?”
The girl looked blank for a moment, then perked up, “Yes,” and led me to a wall where ... there was nothing. “Oh, I guess we don't. I guess we're out.”
“Huh. How about one I could borrow?”
I wouldn't have been surprised if she'd said no, but she agreed. I thanked her, filled it up, carried it over the grassy hill to the car ... and couldn't figure out how to work it. The nozzle was made of plastic, and we figured you were supposed to pull back on it, twist it, and it would lock in place, allowing an opening for the gas to flow out. But it wouldn't lock into place. I actually had to hold it in place, and wound up spilling gas all over my hands. Even then it came out in a glurging trickle. Meanwhile, other cars kept driving up and looking as confused as we had by the construction signs. Patricia always gave them a shrug of commiseration.
Eventually we filled up the tank—about a quarter full—and I returned the canister, asked for a bathroom to wash my hands, washed my hands about five times but couldn't get rid of them smell. I also gave the girl $10 for her trouble. But I'd learned my lesson. Never subsume your true nature for the sake of efficiency. It's never efficient.
Last night I dreamed we were watching a TV show or movie about drug wars or gang wars, and the setting was a rival gang in Mexico or Colombia or somewhere else in Latin America. An attack was imminent, we knew that much; the gangmembers were without character, unknown to us. They were just there to be eliminated as an element of the plot. The attack began at night when one man, maybe sleeping on a wooden table, with a tent-like canvas behind him, popped his head up and was shot in the head through the canvas. He was the first. Then the bullets started whizzing and winging. They just kept coming, and the camera with them, deeper and deeper into the gang's headquarters, toward its nominal leader, and men kept falling. We never saw the attackers, we just heard and felt their bullets. It was like a million other cheap massacres I'd seen on screen but it began to hurt, watching it. Each bullet was like a bee sting, and there were a lot of bullets. “I'm tired of this,” I said.
Then we were watching the aftermath of the attack. It was the next morning and authorities were carting the bullet-riddled bodies away and trying to clean up the mess left behind. Two men were labeled with first names but the last name was sort of the Spanish equivalent of John Doe. “Right,” I thought, “because how would they know who these guys were? How could they identify them?” That seemed like an entire investigative arm of the police I hadn't considered before. The men and women who try to figure out the names and lives of nondescript dead men.
We Interrupt This Blog for a Wedding
That's me on the right later today. But hopefully better dressed and with less drama.
Wait, that's wrong, isn't it? He's dragging Elaine away from a wedding. Oh well, you get the idea.
Also, what other movie image to go with? “The Godfather”? He's going to abuse her, then one brother will beat him up while another will have him killed. “Diner”? That's about fear of marriage. “Romeo and Juliet”? Doesn't end well. So, this. Plus Dusty's one of my patron saints.