Ways of Seeing: Dare to be obsessed

OK. I admit it. I’m obsessed with “Hamilton.” I’m obsessed withthe musical, the man and, now that classes are over — well, maybe a month before — the biography by Ron Chernow. Every time I get in my car now, I turn on VPR for the obligatory five minutes of feigned interest in the news and then switch to the CD player (yes, it’s an older car).
For the first week or so, I held off the pleasure of actually following the plot line. After all, we know the tragic ending. I just listened and listened to the first five numbers over and over again, reveling in each brilliant articulation of American Revolutionary history, perfectly rhythmed and rhymed and delivered in every musical style from patriotic anthem to confrontational, contrapuntal rap.
By week two, I had made it to Jefferson and Hamilton’s showdown over the Constitution, and by week four, to the eerie death of Hamilton’s oldest son, Phillip, at which point I started to cry my way through portions of my commute. When the tears seemed to be getting out of hand and unnecessarily sentimental even to me, I took a break for another round of absurdist politics. Peevish Sanders, Clinton-when-I’d-rather-have-Warren or tyrannical Trump? I’ll take Hamilton. Egotistical and adulterous? Yes. But way more inspiring than anyone we’ve got so far.
In truth, I wish I weren’t as obsessed with “Hamilton” as I am because it seems so unimaginative of me to be so obsessed with a musical that I won’t be able to see until 2017. I’m so used to being a bit of an oddball that I find it a tad unnerving to be on board with anything that is so wildly popular. But maybe I’m getting more hip. More likely, I’m not getting any hipper at all. More likely, it’s that “Hamilton” is the perfect show for nerds who love Broadway and it turns out that there are a lot of us. It’s 1776 on steroids. Driving to work with spring busting out all over and “Hamilton” blasting in my car, I couldn’t be happier.
Why is it so FUN to get completely obsessed with something? For me, I think it has something to do with reclaiming a kind of energy and single-minded focus that we often had when we were kids, but find hard to maintain as adults. We may want to catalogue every plant in the backyard, memorize both their common and Latin names and learn how to identify and prepare the edible ones, but those ever-present “grown-up” distractions get in the way.
Memorizing Red Sox statistics? Maybe, because you can pretend to be “busy with the paper.” But less subtle obsessions are hard to give in to. Driving our kids to school and to sports; grocery shopping and dinner-making, going to work and doing the homework you need to get done before you go to work — all of these pesky tasks can quash a new obsession the minute some good, wacky idea comes to mind. But if you don’t knock that obsession down and actually allow it to take hold, what a treat! Suddenly your world is brightened by that thing you just can’t set aside, put down or turn off.
For those of us over 40 — or whatever — getting completely sucked into something feels a bit like a liaison dangereuse. We are supposed to have “grown out of” this way of being in the world, having presumably grown into more measured and reasonable daily behavior. And yet we haven’t. Genealogy, the knitting craze, bocce, painting — many people I know have found something new or reclaimed something from childhood that they allow themselves — at least for a time — to get obsessed with to the point of full immersion.
Intrigued by this desire to take a plunge strictly for the fun of the plunge itself, I started asking around about what people were obsessed with and why. My social media fueled “research” brought a wide-range of results. One friend reported that she and her husband loved to collect stones on a special vacation beach (top secret) outside of the U.S. With each visit they focused on a particular size of stone — a practice that, she eventually realized, recapitulated her childhood habits of focusing on shells of a particular species or color when she spent her summers on the Jersey shore. With every visit to their favorite beach, the couple worried that they would be stopped at the border for bringing home significant caches of stones for reasons they could not really explain.
“Volunteering with kids,” another friend wrote, describing a totally unexpected turn in her otherwise tech-focused life. “I think it’s an obsession when you look forward to searching on the internet for coloring pages … and you can’t wait for 3 p.m. to roll around so that you can catch the bus to see the kids!” Walking, swimming, stand-up paddle-boarding, biking, caring for cows, “reading fiction ’til my eyeballs cry mercy” these activities were all reported by friends not as “things to do” but as things they couldn’t do without. Another friend described how he used to draw maps of cities identifying where each hotel was located, sometimes including what hotels were located near which highway exit on a given interstate. He became a travel agent. Sometimes what starts out as an obsession can turn into a new career!
A dear friend from high school, whom I know to be an extremely talented dancer, author and farmer, revealed a current obsession I had no idea she’d had the remotest interest in: drawing giant black and white roses. Kimerer posted a picture on Facebook of a drawing she had recently completed, six feet by four feet, charcoal on paper. “Wow, stunning!” observed my fiction-devouring, watery-eyed friend Jody. Clearly, I had started a conversation that everyone was enjoying.
What I’m still pondering, however, is the extent to which my interlocutors were quick to say what they were obsessed with, but scarcely uttered a word as to why they were completely taken over by their pursuits. In the end, all I can conclude is that the why of an obsession is simultaneously self-evident and completely mysterious. It just is.
That is not to say that I can’t make a long list of scholarly, musical and personal-history reasons why I can’t stop playing “Hamilton” (for it’s not only about history, it’s about historiography!). Still, I never thought I would intentionally lengthen my commutes from Monkton to Middlebury, taking random back roads so that I could listen yet one more time to the Schuyler sisters extolling the virtues of Thomas Payne’s “Common Sense” in unforgettable Motown style.
And so, dear readers, I invite you to join me. These early summer days are long and delicious. There’s no sidewalk to shovel and your woodstove doesn’t need stoking. It’s time. Dare to reclaim an old obsession or take a shot at a new one. It’s fun, it’s mysterious and you don’t want to throw away your shot.
Author’s note:
If you want a good travel agent who is obsessed with detail, look no further than Jared Buker at Lincoln Gap Travel.
If you would like to read a fabulous analysis of “Hamilton” by Kimerer LaMothe, my author, dancer, rose-drawing friend — with whom I shared the stage for several high school musicals — go to:https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/what-body-knows/201604/hamilton-mak….
Rebecca Kneale Gould is a writer, scholar of religion and senior lecturer in the Environmental Studies Program at Middlebury College. She tends — and learns a great deal from— a small flock of sheep in Monkton.

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