No More For Hitch

Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011.

Just saw that Christopher Hitchens, the ultra-famous essayist and cultural critic, died in Houston from pneumonia, as a result of his ongoing battle with esophageal cancer. He was 62.

I became familiar with Hitchens because of his book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. I won’t say I liked the book because I completely disagreed with Hitchens worldview, but I will say that the man had a power with words, using them to hone his rhetoric to a razor’s keen. I started reading his other works – essays in Slate, Vanity Fair, The Atlantic and other outlets – as well as catching some of the various YouTube videos that featured him.

Hitchens was that rare breed: as influential on the stage as on the page, and his voice (curiously the victim of his cancer) was a marvelous mixture of baritone and honey. Shoot, you add in his native accent, and there’s not a whole heck of a lot of people who wouldn’t sit in a room and listen to him read minutes from the last Congressional budget hearing. The man was that good.

I only saw him in person once. It was in Birmingham, Alabama, at the Birmingham Sheraton Hotel, hard by I-20 right in the heart of downtown. The event was a debate between Hitchens and noted mathematician David Berlinski, and it was hosted by Fixed-Point Foundation, a Birmingham-based Christian organization whose founder, Larry Taunton, had an interesting friendship with Hitchens. I went with some co-workers, and we took a seat on Hitchens’ side of the room, about six rows back.

Captured still from the CSPAN footage of the Hitchens-Berlinski debate.

He was pale and looked decidedly ill, his head without a hint of hair as the result of his chemo and other treatments. But somehow he still had presence, an uncanny ability to fill the room with his thoughts and words and voice. The crowd was decidedly pro-Hitchens, but the question up for debate (“Does Atheism Poison Everything?”) was directly in Hitchens’ wheelhouse; it was like throwing a 72-mph fastball down the middle to Albert Pujols. Bye-bye, see-you-later, here’s a souvenir to take home to the kiddies.

And poor Berlinski couldn’t keep up.

After the debate was over, we went to a restaurant in the hotel for a post-debate review. My colleagues and I discussed Hitchens’ strengths and weaknesses in the debate (there were far more of the former than the latter), and settled fairly simply on the conclusion that Hitchens had won in a rout.

That was when Hitchens walked by. He had a gaggle of gorgeous young people around him, each one holding his autobiography Hitch-22 (a good read) beneath their arms, each one giddy to be in his wake. The groupies trailed him all the way to the bar and formed an instant wall around the man as he ordered his drink.

It is well documented that Hitchens liked the recipe. Perhaps it lubricated his brain and vocal chords simultaneously, I don’t know. But as he stood there at the bar, chatting and signing books and trying to get a sip of something amber whenever he could, I turned to my colleagues and said, “When he comes back by, I’m gonna ask him what he drinks.”

“Why?” one of my friends asked.

“Because I just want to know,” I said.

I really can’t tell you why, other than this arcane idea that what a man drinks tells you something about his character. I think I read that in a Louis L’Amour novel once upon a time. Or maybe it was Hemingway. Probably L’Amour.

Sure enough, the ailing atheist walked past our table and I screwed up enough courage to follow him.

“Mr. Hitchens?” I called out.

He turned and looked at me, his face tired.

“I hate to bother you, but may I ask you a question?”

He gestured towards the elevator bank down the hall with his glass. “If you don’t mind asking it as I walk. It’s been a long night and I am very tired.”

“Certainly,” I said, and with that we were walking together towards the elevators.

“I would like to know what kind of whiskey you drink,” I said.

He looked at me. “Curiosity?”

“Yes. Mostly.”

He smiled. “Johnny Walker Black.”

“Why?” I asked. I guess I had expected something a little more…sophisticated. Some obscure scotch or something.

“Because,” he said, taking a sip from his glass, “it’s a good whiskey, smooth, with a nice finish. I enjoy it. And, I can find it almost anywhere in the world.”

“Aren’t there better whiskeys?”

“Certainly. But the best isn’t always available. Johnny Walker is.”

I nodded. I didn’t really have any other questions for the man, so I stuck out my hand. “Well, thank you for your time.”

“That’s it?” he asked as he shook my hand. “You’ve no other questions for me?”

“No sir. Thank you for your time.”

“Cheers,” he said, raising his glass to me. Just then, Larry Taunton came around the corner and took Hitchens the rest of the way to the elevators. I went back to my co-workers.

They all looked at me as I returned.

“Johnny Walker Black,” I said as I took my seat.

Someone asked why.

“Convenience,” I said. “It’s not the best, but he can always get it.”

Christopher Hitchens went to his grave denying the existence of God. He kept his word – there was no deathbed conversion, no last-minute Hail Mary to save his eternal soul. What he refused to believe in life he refused to believe in death. Somewhere, someone will write about his consistency of belief, and how it should be seen as a credit to the man.

I won’t write that. I think the man had a powerful mind, an even more powerful ego, and chose an unfortunate path, both for his whiskey and his worldview:

He simply took what was readily available instead of holding out for what was best.

How Lewis Grizzard Changed My Life

I was filing out an application for a men’s mentoring program today (it’s with the C.S. Lewis Institute here in Atlanta), and among the many questions I had to answer was this:

20. What book, other than the Bible, has had the greatest impact on your life? Explain why.

It took me a while to think of it, but once I settled on my answer, I was amazed at just how much that one little book changed the trajectory of my future. This is not spiritual, at least not on the surface, but the book that most changed my life was Lewis Grizzard’s Elvis is Dead and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself.

I first read the book when I was in the sixth grade. My mother bought it as a pleasure read, but never quite got around to it. Something about the yellow paperback’s cover, a picture of Grizzard with a thermometer in his mouth and ice pack on his head, struck me as fascinating, and I quietly snuck the book out of my mom’s room and read it in one afternoon. I remember that I laughed at all of the jokes – even though this was an adult book with adult humor, everything resonated with me. It was the first glimpse of a truth about me: that I identified better with the generation ahead of me than I did with my own peers. My sensibilities, sense of humor, interests, observations, politics, and manners were more Baby Boomer than Gen X and I felt the same thing I felt when I stayed inside to listen to my parents and grandparents talk while the other kids went to play: that I was at home.

I loved the language, the irreverence, the risky-but-not-overt humor that everyone knew wasn’t like Mama’s but wouldn’t make Mama blush if she heard it; I loved the way that Grizzard was able to tell me about his plain life and make me interested. I had never read non-fiction before that (unless you count the Bible and my school books), and I had always assumed that non-fiction was boring. This opened up my eyes to the truth about story—narrative is the ebb and flow of all life, not just the stuff creative people make up. Grizzard’s book showed me that the average person is the central character in his or her own story while simultaneously being a major and/or minor character in countless other stories.

But I suppose what really makes this book most transformational in my life is the sheer fact that it made me want to write like Grizzard. I became a huge fan of his column in the AJC, and when it came time to select a career, and the college that would help prepare me for it, I followed in Lewis’ footsteps and chose the University of Georgia, majoring in Journalism. I gave up on that dream after my freshman year, but Lewis Grizzard’s book was so central to my choice that I never bothered considering any other school. It was UGA all the way.

I still find myself writing in the Grizzard tradition. I enjoy writing fiction, but I find that most of the time I connect best with people when I write in that columnist, everyman-observer, Southern boy style. I’ve found that I can write about anything that I want and be funny, serious, emotive, or all of the above within a single piece and people identify with it and embrace it. If I could have a career writing essays or columns that deal with my life as a parent or pastor or husband or Southern gentleman, I would be among the happiest men in the world, and I think in part it comes back to my salvation: I want to know that my life contributed something to the lives of others. My life – not what other people might expect from me, but who I am inside, no filters for public consumption.

I could go on, but in ways I couldn’t articulate, Elvis is Dead and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself was the awakening of the man I wanted to become, the man I am still striving to be. It remains a book that I read on a regular basis, even though some of the jokes aren’t as funny anymore; I can see in Grizzard a spiritual emptiness that leads to bitterness that I never noticed before, and it makes me sad for him, even as I determine to go in the opposite direction. But the book still reminds me of the stirring inside me to tell stories, to write well, to connect with people in a way that earns me an audience and the privilege to write about what I see is funny or true or meaningful or important about life. And it compels me to continue working toward the goal of being a published author, no matter how stacked the odds are against me. It is part of my purpose, I suppose, and Lewis Grizzard helped me find it.