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MANN: Tardy thanks for Christopher Hitchens
Hatreds got him out of bed in the morning but left time for Cat-Opoly
It’s hard to say anything about Christopher Hitchens that hasn’t been said already, but it’s even harder to say nothing. Hitchens died last week, a year-and-a-half after he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He and I were not lifelong friends or family members, but I got to know him fairly well. We met nearly seven years ago, and it’s safe to say that, during this time, Hitchens mattered more to me than I did to him.
Even though he was 31 years older than I was, Hitchens was less a “father figure” than an “older brother figure” to me. We talked about literature, politics and religion, and we also talked about girls, booze and various other topics not fit to print. He used words I didn’t know existed as well as words banned in school classrooms. His speech was as free as it was refreshing.
Hitchens was fond of refreshments. His reputation as a beastly drinker was so stout that people seemed to forget he was a mammal whose thirst could (eventually) be quenched. I am somewhat proud, and somewhat ashamed, to say that I once imbibed enough Johnnie Walker in his presence for him to comment, “If I drank that much scotch, I’d be violent.” To this day, I do not know if he was complimenting or castigating me. (I took it as a compliment.)
While he often seemed like an older brother, he deserved more than sibling respect. I addressed him as “Professor Hitchens.” I could not bring myself to call him “Christopher,” and he would not let me call him “Mr. Hitchens.” He made this clear the day we met in the spring of 2005.
At the time, I was working (in a very low, noncustodial position) at Fox News Channel’s D.C. bureau. I was easily the least important of its employees, all of whom, as far as I could tell, were accustomed to seeing major politicians and celebrities walk by their desks on a daily basis. But when Hitchens walked in one day for an interview, about eight staffers swarmed him. This immediately annoyed me because I wanted to talk to - i.e., annoy - him myself.
When I finally got the chance, I blathered incoherently about a story idea of mine involving “neoconservative doves.” Strangely - or perhaps predictably - Hitchens had many thoughts of his own about this subject and shared them with me. He named a bunch of obscure academics, employed some esoteric terminology, and finally said, “I think you’re onto something.” I never wrote the article, partly because it was clear that Hitchens could say more about “neocon doves” off the cuff than I could possibly write. His spontaneous expertise - about an idea I could barely articulate - intimidated me into inaction.
Here was a professor who could teach more than most people could learn. Given his superhuman brainpower, it was always a surprise to rediscover that he was actually human. I remember walking into his apartment one evening and seeing him and his daughter playing a board game called “Cat-Opoly,” a feline version of Monopoly. I was taken aback. Seeing one of the world’s top intellectuals engaging in cat-themed recreation was not what I expected. It was like hearing that Stephen Hawking listens to Britney Spears.
Hitchens was more than a public intellectual. He was also a father and a husband. On the night before his 57th birthday a few years ago, I saw him hug his wife in such a deeply sincere way that left me befuddled. “Do geniuses hug?” I wondered idiotically. Hitchens proved that deep thinkers can have deep feelings.
Of course, not all of Hitchens‘ feelings were positive. He hated many things and many people, and he seemed to enjoy screaming in people’s faces more than whispering sweet nothings into a loved one’s ear. Hatred, as he once said, “is a terrific way of getting you out of bed in the morning.” Like many others, I loved him for his hatreds.
Whenever I visited Hitchens‘ apartment, I always brought a pen and paper with me so that I could take notes for no discernible reason. He often warned against hero worship, which made things slightly awkward for me as I sat in awe scribbling notes while he watched his lamb bake in the oven. But it was worth it: I have yet to meet another person who can make a clipboard so essential and enjoyable in a conversation.
In one of my first emails to Hitchens, I wrote “Tardy Thanks” in the subject heading. I was belatedly thanking him for letting me come over to his home, consume his groceries and more or less waste his time. I thanked him thereafter many times for many things, but any expression of gratitude for Hitchens always seemed tardy. This is particularly the case now. He deserves thanks for many things, not the least of which is simply for existing in the first place.
Windsor Mann is editor of “The Quotable Hitchens: From Alcohol to Zionism” (Da Capo Press, 2011).
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