There’s this song on the “Hamilton” soundtrack called “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” that I’ve been listening to obsessively since I saw the musical last Friday. (This will not be the last time I openly brag about having seen “Hamilton.” With the original cast. The room where it happens! I’m done for now.) I listen to the song in line at Chipotle, or in the shower; I belt it at pregames for Kerrytown house parties like I’m running out of time.
But if I’m listening in public, I have to turn off the part of my brain that digests the lyrics, because the song is actually sad as hell. Eliza Hamilton sings about her efforts to preserve her husband’s legacy, to get through the 50 years she’s forced to live without her Alexander — the love of her life, that master of words who never ceased to amaze her. Fifty years a widow. At the end of the song, Eliza hopes she has done enough, that she has sufficiently preserved and curated the life they’d have built together if only he’d been around to live out that life with her. If you see me weeping in the Chipot-line, have pity, because I am definitely crying into my $10 bill.
You have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story.
It’s a terrifying thought, having your story pulled from your own hands, your pen interrupted. Speaking as someone who, like Alexander Hamilton, has documented their life through copious handwritten plans (of weekly TV schedules) and affectionate messages to pals (typed on my iPhone, at 3 a.m., while I wait for the microwave to heat up a leftover omelet), it’s hard to imagine a future where I’m not writing bi-weekly, self-indulgent feeling dumps about how I love television, where all that’s left for people to remember me by is a handful of TV columns and some term papers. Before I started writing this column, I counted the number of weeks left that my column will run before the end of the semester. It’s only four, including this one. I’ve got to make my words count, because I won’t always be around to write more of them.
It seems like all the TV I’ve been watching lately is saturated with goodbyes and endings — Shoshanna leaving Japan on “Girls,” Coach Taylor moving to Austin for a hot second on “Friday Night Lights,” the “Mad Men” finale, which I stupidly re-watched last night in an effort to quell the nostalgia blues I’ve been feeling lately (obviously, this strategy did not work). But the most poignant of the goodbye parades, oddly enough, was on “New Girl.”
Megan Fox’s character, whom I praised in this column a few weeks back, exited the show and moved out of the loft in Tuesday’s episode. With Nick’s crush on Reagan finally consummated, her leaving couldn’t have come at a worse or more dramatic time. Though their time together was brief — Fox was only on the show for five episodes — Nick felt a real connection with Reagan, and wants her to remember him. He wants his legacy to mean something, and he thinks the best way to do this is by crafting the perfect goodbye. He and Schmidt discuss how to write the perfect “goosebumps walk-away,” “the line that haunts her, that consumes her, that rings in her ear for all eternity, granting you … immortality.”
This line, which Schmidt murmurs with a murderous pitch as he stares into Nick’s eyes, is played for laughs. But there’s some truth in that statement, in the power of a good goosebumps walk-away. Words are immortality. Being remembered by the people you love is immortality. There’s no death or goodbye or sadness if that person’s words are bouncing around in your brain every day, if you can retrieve their words and think about them. Words are scripts for memories, approximations that can tide you over when that person is not around to provide you with new words. They’re what’s left.
When you’re gone who remembers your name? Who keeps your flame?
Whenever I watch “American Crime Story: The People Vs. O.J. Simpson,” I wonder what Robert Kardashian and Johnnie Cochran might have thought of the show. In the 20-odd years since the real trial took place, Kardashian and Cochran are the only two major players who have passed away. They don’t have the chance to re-tell their stories, and their characterization is entirely in the hands of Ryan Murphy and the rest of the show’s creative team. I wonder what Kardashian would have thought about being played, with Ross Geller-esque best-friend moping, by David Schwimmer, or about how his honor is contrasted with the fame-hungry personalities of the other Kardashians. Would Cochran want to be remembered as a cutthroat manipulator, an anti-discrimination warrior or a loving father? I can’t imagine the real Marcia Clark, who actually endured the sexism and media attention that the show portrays, enjoys the TV show’s speculation about her romantic involvement with her co-counsel, Christopher Darden.
“American Crime Story” is a brilliant and endlessly fascinating show, but in writing real people as sensationalized characters, the show begins to cross into an ethical grey area. What’s the real truth? What’s written-down evidence — and what’s just the TV narrative that’s presented for us as viewers? The show sparked my curiosity enough for me to check out the nonfiction book the TV show is based on, “The Run of His Life” by Jeffrey Toobin. Being a journalist, I know that there is a version of every story, and the closest thing you can do to unearthing the facts is hearing as many sides of the story as possible. I’m excited to read the book after I graduate, when I’m not so busy writing and have more time to read.
It’s a terrifying thought, having your story pulled from your own hands. I don’t want to think about all the free time I’ll have to read this summer, at home in Illinois or in the ghostly Ann Arbor with all my friends moving to big cities or working dream internships. I don’t want to think that this time isn’t even guaranteed — that my narcissistic youth doesn’t take into account everything that could change if somebody blows a red light or challenges me to a duel.
I don’t want to think about my words as clues or history or imagine someone else reading this column the way I sometimes revisit an old friend’s published work, desperate for a shadow and a memory of the way their humor and their brain used to work. I don’t want someone picking up my written tics like I’ve picked theirs up, almost subconsciously, like my keyboard is driving me to tell their story and make new words that might do them proud. I like to think of myself as being everywhere at once, always talking and always writing, and it scares me more than anything else to think that I’m running out of time and space on the page. That it’ll be someone else’s headshot five lines down in the TV column, someone else in my favorite chair and other people there in the moment and talking and writing, and me off somewhere without a pen and hoping somebody’s still thinking about me, remembering me fiercely and reading the words I’ve left as clues, finishing the story I’d only just started writing.
You really do write like you’re running out of time.
When I saw “Hamilton” in New York City last week (I told you this wouldn’t be the last you heard of it), there was an overwhelming power about being in a room with hundreds of other sniffling, tissue-wielding fans during that last song of the show, standing on the precipice of a moment and watching time go by from the second mezzanine, the very back of the theatre with my seat against the wall. From the top, I could feel the minute hand on my watch scraping across its face, the night inching forward like that progress bar at the bottom of the Netflix player screen.
I felt time receding into history just as everything was happening. The show I’d been waiting for three months to see was ending, the last Spring Break of my undergraduate years coming to a close, the curtain falling over my senior year. The performance I saw exists now only in the memories of the people who were there — and unless somebody recorded the thing on their phone, I’ll never see what happened onstage that night ever again.
Isn’t the same true of every night?
I thought of the lyrics from the Vampire Weekend song I’d been listening to earlier that day: “I want to know, does it bother you? / The long click of the ticking clock / There’s a lifetime right in front of you / And everyone I know.”
It does bother me. I want to do enough, to make enough memories, and write enough stories, that these moments might live on even after they pass. I hope I’ve done enough.
After the show, at the stage door, I looked around — at my two joyful friends, the glittering city rising up before me, the other fans begging for autographs and selfies with Daveed Diggs, the “Hamilton” posters in my hands and the great swaths of time behind and before me, all those opportunities to write and tell my story. There’s so much time, so much to say and accomplish.
How lucky I am to have three more columns and six more weeks to do it all.