Hamilton in San Diego, Opening Night

We took the family to see Hamilton, the mega-hit musical about the life and times of one of America’s founding fathers. We have two season tickets to the San Diego Civic Theatre (which we bought specifically to see Hamilton), and we bought two more tickets during the subscriber-only early purchase period. It’s a good thing we got our tickets when we did, because the run was quickly sold out.

Our season ticket seats are in the mezzanine, and the two additional seats were a few rows from the back wall of the balcony. But here’s an easy way to get front-row views from any unobstructed seat in the house: binoculars!

From where we sat, binoculars were essential given the number of people on stage through most of the show – without them, it would have been very, very hard to tell which one of them was singing. It even might have become hard to identify characters after costume changes.note 1 With binoculars, the view was like being suspended somewhere above the third row of orchestra seats, well forward of the loge.

Hamilton is 99% through-sung, like Phantom of the Opera (or, indeed, opera itself). The energy was electrifying from start to finish, and the relentless forward thrust made it feel shorter than its run time. The show has its setpiece villain (a greasily feline Aaron Burr) and setpiece fool (a delightfully megalomaniacal King George III). And, like Shakespeare’s history plays, Hamilton takes egregious liberties with actual events, including what I’d consider the disservice of depicting Hamilton as sitting out much of the Revolutionary War as a writer for General George Washington, when in fact he was a respected combat commander well before Washington rose to power.note 2

It’s all in good fun, though, and there are clever nods to everything from Pirates of Penzance to Macbeth. The historical Hamilton would have known Shakespeare, of course, but not Gilbert & Sullivan.

I enjoyed the colorblind casting, which sent its own message about today’s America. After all, even history plays reflect more the times in which they are performed than the times in which they are set.

I also appreciated the bringing to light some of Hamilton’s many flaws. In this era of omnipresent media, today’s leaders seem to fall far short of the bar set by our idolized (and idealized) forefathers. It reminded me that men of power, at least, haven’t changed much.

Finally, I loved the bringing to life an era of vast possibility. It was truly a New World. The sheer, manic optimism that created this nation is beyond comprehension.note 3 Yet, possibilities still exist to remake the nation anew. If Hamilton turns just one more high school student into a historian or political leader, that’s a great result. As an aside, my older son, a high school senior and an early Hamilton devotee, insists that his A in history was due more to to Hamilton and Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter than anything else. So there you go.

Which neatly brings me to my bigger point: Nations are built on mythology, not history. By creating a uniquely American history play, Lin-Manuel Miranda has woven himself into the very fabric of the United States, past, present, and future. His mythological Alexander Hamilton co-exists with the historical Alexander Hamilton in the same uneasy way Shakespeare’s heroic Henry V co-exists with the historical, and much less-likeable, Henry V. In both cases, one is a living work of fiction, the other is a dead rich white guy from the ruling elite.

And therein lies the rub. We’re still basically telling the story of the American white elite. By contrast, the musical Allegiance told the story of ordinary American families of Japanese descent who were rounded up en masse and shipped off to remote camps during World War II.note 4 My family had the privilege of seeing its world premiere at The Old Globe in San Diego in 2012; it reached Broadway three years later. Yet, despite the backing and presence of charismatic TV/movie/meme star George Takei, the show received mixed reviews and closed after its initial four-month run. Other recent plays about the historical experiences of American minorities, such as Alfredo Ramos’ The Last Angry Brown Hat, about Chicano political awakening in the 1960s and ’70s, just haven’t gotten the mass traction.

Here’s a case in point: Miranda’s previous award-winning musical, In the Heights, is set in modern-day New York City, in a predominately Hispanic-American neighborhood. But it relies on a deus ex machina in the form of a winning lottery ticket to bring its story to a happy ending. The idea that anyone can get lucky is apparently more salable than the idea that ethnic minorities can get ahead through their own intelligence, talent, and drive.

Here’s another case in point: in Hamilton, the line “Immigrants – we get the job done” is met with “applause and cheers every single night.”note 5 It’s arguably the play’s Big Idea. Yet, it appears nowhere on the licensed merchandise. You can buy “My shot” mugs, A. Ham and A. Burr baseball caps, and logo sweatshirts. But the commercial side doesn’t follow the script. Instead it reveals the truth about America today: people may applaud the sentiment, but they won’t bring it into their homes and they won’t wear it in public.note 6

In 1927, Jerome Kerr and Oscar Hammerstein II delivered a breakthough message about racial prejudice through Show Boat, a frilly song-and-dance musical set during the post-Civil War Reconstruction era. 31 years later, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun showed a generation of theater-goers a slice of the mid-century urban Black American experience, confronting issues of ethnic identity and entrenched socioeconomic racism. Today, in Hamilton, perhaps color-blind casting and a few verbal zingers represent the limit of what can become a mega-hit American history play.

So, like all good history plays, Hamilton shows us how far we’ve come. And how far we still have to go.


1. This is where I appreciate William Shakespeare’s audience-friendly craftsmanship in writing. Generally, his characters continue to be identified by name throughout the play. That really helps keep things straight. Go back up

2. The artillery company Alexander Hamilton raised – or, more accurately, stole from the British in a daring raid – in the summer of 1775 and commanded through 1776 evolved into the 1st Battalion, 5th Field Artillery Regiment. It is still in active service. We make a big deal of George Washington crossing the Delaware River to attack a German garrison attached to the British at Trenton on Christmas Day 1776, but Hamilton was also there, sick as a dog but right up at the front, personally managing his big guns to support the assault and wreck the Crown forces’ counterattack. Go back up

3. Two excellent books that capture the exuberance of our founders and their outrageous vision are Founding Brothers by Joseph J. Ellis and The Day the American Revolution Began by William H. Hallahan. Go back up

4. My grandfather was a Japanese-American businessman and entrepreneur who through the 1930s created the largest wholesale nursery in the West. As a result of his proven executive ability, he was among the first rounded up at gunpoint soon after Pearl Harbor, along with other civic leaders; his family was later relocated to Poston Camp I, where he later joined them. My mother spent her high school years in crude, shared barracks surrounded by barbed wire, gun towers, and armed soldiers. My father, too, was imprisoned as a high schooler; his family was sent to Heart Mountain in Montana. So, yeah, more than a bit of a connection there. That said, the American Revolution is a more universal theme than the experience of American ethnic minorities, and the team that wrote Allegiance, while incredibly talented, were no Lin-Manuel Miranda – who else is? Go back up

5. Rory O’Malley (who played King George III), quoted in “At Long Last, ‘Hamilton’: Megahit Musical Lands in San Diego This Weekend” by James Hebert, San Diego Union-Tribune, 3 Jan. 2018, Night+Day section, pp. 6–8. O’Malley went on to say that this line, and the audience’s consistent reaction to it, was his favorite part of the play. Go back up

6. I’ve fairly recently got up the guts to use my Executive Order 9066 canvas shopping bag from the Japanese American National Museum when I go to the grocery store. Only one person has ever commented on it, but it has gotten a few long looks. I would gladly wear an “Immigrant 3G – Still getting the job done” t-shirt, although I’m afraid it would also remind me that, compared to my grandfather, I’m something of a slacker. Go back up

Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon as a Zen parable

I love Joseph Conrad’s work, but came to his novella Typhoon only about a dozen years ago. I instantly recognized it as an extended Zen parable, which just as instantly struck me as an odd thing for Conrad. I turned to the library and the web to learn more.

It turns out that I may be the only person on the planet to believe Typhoon has anything to do with Zen. Conrad’s faith, of which he was skeptical, appears to have been rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition. And, of course, the novella Typhoon is based on a real event.

On the other hand, as a sailor Conrad spent time in and around Southeast Asia. As a writer, he occasionally refers to Eastern philosophy. In Amy Foster, for instance, Mr. Swaffer asks Dr. Kennedy if the ragged, incomprehensible man who washed up on their shores might be “a bit of a Hindoo,” and in Heart of Darkness, Conrad describes Marlow as having “. . . the pose of a Buddha preaching in European clothes and without a lotus flower . . . ” It’s perhaps worth noting that Heart of Darkness was published in 1899, the same year Conrad started writing Typhoon.

Multiple readings haven’t altered my opinion: Typhoon is a great Zen story, all the greater if it was achieved unknowingly.note*

Here’s a five-sentence summary of Typhoon. Captain MacWhirr of the steamer s/s Nan-Shan is a stolid, unimaginative man and a source of amusement for his young chief mate, Jukes, and his chief engineer, Solomon Rout. While on a routine trip carrying cargo that includes 200 homeward-bound Chinese laborers, signs of an impending storm prompt Jukes to suggest altering course to dodge it. MacWhirr, though, sees no benefit in dodging weather – the storm’s location can’t be pinpointed and once course is changed it’s impossible to confirm the storm’s presence on the original track. He maintains the ship’s heading and runs smack into the typhoon. He persists, however, meeting an extraordinary situation with ordinary competence, and the ship, with all hands, including the Chinese passengers, survives to limp into port.

On the face of it, Typhoon is the story of one man’s will (and by extension, man’s will) overcoming the vastly superior forces of nature.

But, as I said, I see more to it than that.

The very title, Typhoon, is Eastern in origin. It comes from the Chinese dai-fung, meaning “big wind.” So, not only is the title a spoiler – the reader knows from the beginning that the ship and crew will encounter a specific maritime disaster – it also establishes place. As an aside, my Japanese grandfather believed it was a good sign when a baby slept with its legs and arms spread wide. It was dai, or “big,” because the Chinese character, and the Japanese character based on it, resembles a small person with arms and legs outstretched. In context, that particular word “big” encompassed robust health and great good fortune. So, although an English speaker might find ominous the obvious homonym for dai, an Eastern speaker might find more-positive associations.

Typhoon‘s first sentence tells us about the captain.
Captain MacWhirr, of the steamer Nan-Shan, had a physiognomy that, in the order of material appearances, was the exact counterpart of his mind: it presented no marked characteristics of firmness or stupidity; it had no pronounced characteristics whatever; it was simply ordinary, irresponsive, and unruffled.

I was immediately struck by the idea that MacWhirr is the human equivalent of the Taoist “uncarved block,” or a thing in its simplest, most-natural state.

This impression was powerfully reinforced in the next paragraph, in which MacWhirr is described as sitting “sunburnt and smiling faintly, with downcast eyes.” The image of a Buddha is underlined by his partial resemblance to a polished bronze idol: “. . . no matter how close he shaved, fiery metallic gleams passed, when he moved his head, over the surface of his cheeks.”

MacWhirr’s professional abilities reveal something akin to a nearness to nature, or, perhaps more accurately, to things as they really are. For instance, he reveals a faulty door lock with no fuss or even evidence that the omniscient narrator can share; it’s an incident of transcendental, yet pragmatic, awareness. His ship is “the floating abode of harmony and peace.” And, he blandly understands the language of the sea, forgoing his cabin to live on the bridge and sleep in the chart room on this particular voyage.

Furthermore, MacWhirr’s decision to not alter course could be seen as being in keeping with the Zen concept of not changing with the changes. There’s a concise explanation of this idea in Zen Speaks: Shouts of Nothingness (1994) by Tsai Chih Chung and translated by Brian Bruya, pp. 73-74.
In changing with the changes, the more we chase the farther away we get. Meet the changes by not changing, for the number of ways to change is limited, while the number of ways to stay the same is infinite.

In other words, we don’t know where the typhoon is or where it will be in the future. So, any spot in the area is about as safe – and as dangerous – as any other. Here’s MacWhirr trying to enlighten his chief mate:
A gale is a gale, Mr. Jukes,” resumed the Captain, “and a full-powered steamship has got to face it. There’s just so much dirty weather knocking about the world, and the proper thing is to go through it . . .”

MacWhirr’s chief mate, Jukes, could be seen as a novitiate. He is an educated, competent officer and, to a large extent, Conrad’s alter ego. The chief engineer, Solomon (loaded name, that) Rout, represents a worldly wisdom, rooted in reality but with the intellectual distance to be amused in turns by both MacWhirr and Jukes. The ugly, ape-like boatswain might be an easy-going idiot, but he does his job well – he, like MacWhirr, may be closer to Zen than the others. The grubby freelance second mate may be the most imaginative, prescient person aboard; no wonder he loses his way in the crisis.

Yet, if MacWhirr is close to the sea and may be well on a path toward some sort of enlightenment, he’s also untested.
The sea itself, as if sharing Mr. Jukes’ good-natured forbearance, had never put itself out to startle the silent man . . . Dirty weather he had known, of course. He had been made wet, uncomfortable, tired in the usual way, felt at the time and presently forgotten. . . . But he had never been given a glimpse of immeasurable strength and of immoderate wrath . . . the wrath and fury of the passionate sea. He knew it existed, as we know that crime and abominations exist; he had heard of it as a peaceable citizen in a town hears of battles, famines, and floods, and yet knows nothing of what those things mean . . . Captain MacWhirr had sailed over the surface of the oceans as some men go skimming over the years of existence to sink gently into a placid grave, ignorant of life to the last, without ever having been made to see all it may contain of perfidy, of violence, and of terror.

Here we have the pre-crisis Captain MacWhirr. To the Western mind, including that of the author, he’s ignorant. To the Eastern mind, he lets the past go, and he has something of the know-nothing mind. Either way, the universe has a test for him: the typhoon. It would overwhelm the merely ignorant. But, like a student of Zen, MacWhirr’s letting go of the past holds fast the lessons of the past; his know-nothingness is rooted in vast experience and practical know-how.

In addition, MacWhirr embodies the paradox of wei wu wei: the ability to do without doing. Look, for example, at how MacWhirr’s characteristic inertness is repeatedly described: almost always coupled to positive outcomes such as his crew’s harmonious existence, or the profound relief felt by his chief mate upon his mere presence on the bridge.

And indeed in the moments following the storm hitting, MacWhirr is a man of invisibly decisive action. While his second mate is paralyzed by fear and his deck crew mills around under cover, MacWhirr, with the assistance of a stoic helmsman in the wheelhouse and frenzied engineers below decks, manages his ship’s heading to minimize the storm’s threat and maximize the effects of his own meager resources. He then, methodically, turns his attention to his deck crew, sending officers to roust them and put them to work securing the pandemonious Chinese laborers and their belongings. It’s a mission that strikes Jukes, a man of imagination, as a futile exercise, but MacWhirr is undeterred.

MacWhirr’s calm spreads through the crew. Jukes, harboring a fatalistic belief that he won’t live through the typhoon, remains steadfast in a state of what Conrad calls “do-nothing heroics.” The rest of the crew’s beliefs are unexplored; instead, their actions demonstrate the re-emergence of order. The ape-like boatswain manhandles objects and people into compliance. The ship’s carpenter silently retrieves ropes with which to rig lifelines. Only the second mate is left gibbering on the wheelhouse floor, relieved of his duties by MacWhirr.

Jukes’ journey, in contrast, is one of facing the inability of imagination and knowledge to adequately grasp the situation as it is. At the first whiff of danger, he springs into action with alacrity and professionalism. However, with the typhoon descending on him and his ship, Jukes finds himself saddled with “an inclination to disbelieve the reality of this experience. . . . (he) had never doubted his ability to imagine the worst; but this was so much beyond his powers of fancy that it appeared incompatible with the existence of any ship whatever.”

Desperate, Jukes turns to an unknowable force beyond nature: “My God! My God! My God! My God!”

The maelstrom tumbles him into MacWhirr, an island of solidity on the bridge, and in that moment more solid, and more useful, than the fixed cast iron fittings.

As always, MacWhirr deals pragmatically with things as they are, not things as they might be, a characteristic that seems to extend even to the concept of a deity; it’s worth noting that Conrad never has MacWhirr calling on supernatural assistance. Instead, his faith lies in his ship’s builders, the engines, chief engineer Rout, and chief mate Jukes. Upon being told that the lifeboats have been swept overboard, MacWhirr’s response is a calm “All right. . . . Can’t be helped.”

By the way, “can’t be helped” is embedded deep in Japanese culture as “Shikata ga nai.” It looks to Western eyes like a form of stoicism, but what it is, is an acceptance of things beyond one’s control. That nuance is often overlooked: shikata ga nai is not a surrender, it’s a letting go that enables one to get on with it, whatever “it” might be at that moment. It’s a tool that helps one practice mindfulness. There’s a closely related Zen teaching to the effect that the main cause of suffering, is not accepting things as they are.

The difference between MacWhirr and Jukes, between pragmatism and intellectualism, can be summed up in a single exchange between them, shouted over the shrieking hurricane while locked in a tight embrace for dear life. Jukes shouts “Will she get through this?” MacWhirr answers, “She may.”

Jukes has the mental vividness to conjure up a vast range of hypothetical outcomes, to which MacWhirr responds with simple reality.

Later, in the stillness of the eye of the hurricane with the second half of the storm fast approaching, MacWhirr attempts to impart to Jukes some final bits of wisdom. They are as good a Zen story-lesson as anything else.
It will be bad, and there’s an end. … We must trust her to go through it and come out on the other side. That’s plain and straight. . . . She will be smothered and swept again for hours,” mumbled the Captain. “There’s not much left by this time above deck for the sea to take away – unless you or me.”

Both, sir,” whispered Jukes, breathlessly.

You are always meeting trouble halfway, Jukes,” Captain MacWhirr remonstrated quaintly. “Though, it’s a fact that the second mate is no good. D’ye hear, Mr. Jukes? You would be left alone if . . . “

Captain MacWhirr interrupted himself and Jukes, glancing on all sides, remained silent.

Don’t you be put out by anything,” the Captain continued, mumbling rather fast. “Keep her facing it. They may say what they like, but the heaviest seas run with the wind. Facing it – always facing it – that’s the way to get through. You are a young sailor. Face it. That’s enough for any man. Keep a cool head.”

Everyone makes it, of course.

So, should MacWhirr have changed course? The absence of evidence reinforces the Zen teaching: one simply can’t say.

In the end, though, Jukes – and, by extension, perhaps Conrad himself – doesn’t get it. Jukes writes to a friend about Captain MacWhirr and the typhoon, saying, “I think he got out of it very well for such a stupid man.”

In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu (1963, translated by D.C. Lau, p. 73) writes about leadership in Book One, XVII: “The best of all rulers is but a shadowy presence to his subjects. . . Hesitant, he does not utter his words lightly. When his task is accomplished and his work done, the people all say, ‘It happened to us naturally.’”

MacWhirr is, by that standard, the best of all captains. And, perhaps because the expected hero in the Western tradition, Jukes, so thoroughly misses the point as seen from an Eastern perspective, Typhoon may be among the best of all modern Zen literature.

What is the point of Zen enlightenment? Nothing (Chung and Bruya, p. 19.) What was the point of the typhoon? Nothing.

I’ll let Joseph Conrad have the final word here, from a letter to Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham, quoted in Joseph Conrad: A Biography (1991) by Jeffrey Meyers, p. 166.
Faith is a myth and beliefs shift like mists on the shore; thoughts vanish; words, once pronounced, die; and the memory of yesterday is as shadowy as the hope of tomorrow. . . . In this world – as I have known it – we are made to suffer without the shadow of a reason, of a cause, or of guilt. . . . A moment, a twinkling of an eye and nothing remains – but a clod of mud, of cold mud, of dead mud cast into black space, rolling around an extinguished sun. Nothing. Neither thought, nor sound, nor soul. Nothing.

* An alternative explanation is that, being a man with rudimentary knowledge of a hammer, everything I see is a nail. A more theological argument might be that certain concepts of Zen philosophy, being universal, quite naturally exist within the Western tradition by other names, and vice versa. Go back up