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Posted by on Oct 25, 2012 in Blog, Book Reviews, Essays | 0 comments

Staring Death in the Eye and Not Blinking: On Christopher Hitchens and “Mortality”

 

hitchens-book-review

 

Readers and friends, sometimes one and the same, sometimes not, know of my profound affection for the words and ideas of the late writer and polemic Christopher Hitchens.

Hitchens, who died nearly a year ago, penned some 15 books over the course a bombastically bountiful career that spanned nearly three decades — the first half spent in the U.K., the nation of his birth, and the later half in the U.S., the country to which he eventually attached himself as a naturalized citizen.  But his real citizenry was to free thought, ideas, and debate.

His writings which later morphed into hundreds of speeches and lectures, weren’t merely a concoction of loose words and phrases, they were carefully calculated steamrollers which flattened centuries’ accumulation of myths, trouncing the idolatry attached to those he so deservedly disdained, including most famously — Henry Kissinger and Mother Theresa.

Love him or hate him, you had to respect the man everyone who was fortunate enough to be included his inner circle of Vanity Fair elite lovingly called “Hitch.”

Hitch was unquestionably the bravest writer of our generation, almost recklessly unafraid of the fallout he would inevitably encounter for expressing what would both literally and figuratively be blasphemous to all aspects of our popular culture.  I mean, you may not like to hear the things he said or read the things he wrote, and might not agree with the man, but one must admit — it takes balls to tear down Mother Teresa.  Henry Kissinger, less so.

Consider the answer he once gave to a question as to what’s the most overrated virtue.  Without any hestitation or ambiguity, Hitchens roared — “Faith, closely followed – in the overall shortage of time – by patience.”

There would indeed be a sad irony to Hitchens’ blistering answer here, which would be prophetic.  No doubt, Hitchens’ life did finally run out of time, at a far less than complete 62 years.  During the later stages of physical decline, mentally as strong as ever, he expressed his greatest regret at not being able to go another twenty more years, continuing to wage the war against intellectual servitude, where ever he saw it.  And yet, faced with his own impending death and awareness thereof, Hitchens never once wavered from his own faith, a faith not cast towards some imaginary heaven, but the faith focused inward to the self.  Hitchens never compromised his beliefs nor wavered in his consistency.  One had to admire that.

During the final excruciatingly painful year of his life, when he was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus, and as he became increasingly aware of the fate awaiting him which would have no happy ending in spite of all the best doctors and alternative therapies, many who followed his career were eager to see the final fateful chapter played out.  Instigated by his ceaseless bashing of religion with such veracity, some wondered if he might actually undergo a “foxhole conversion.”

That final melancholic year of his life, while being perhaps the most poignant era of his writing and speaking career, was also the most gripping.  It was a car crash, a rubber-necking vouyeristic exercise for many driving by on life’s conjested highway, particularly for those who may have relished in the twisted irony of seeing a man put the ultimate test of his own “faith.”  And that is the faith in one’s own constitution and belief set.  Which, no matter what one’s views, are not always easy things to stand by.

Mortality is the final book written by Hitchens.  It’s a far more personal narrative than anything previously written by the Oxford-educated iconoclast who made a career of arguing with cozy intellectual comfort zone of conventional wisdom.

To those unfamiliar with Hitchens – the man and his writings – the biggest surprise might be the absence of metaphorical violins in the narrative.  Alas, there are no strings attached to these words, though if you admired the man as I did, his brave personal toil ultimately does pull at the heartstrings.  To those more familiar with the man, remaining steadfastly convinced and comfortable with his position on matters of the spirit was hardly a surprise at all.  It was, in fact, to be expected.  It’s a walk to the gallows with a head held high.  Even deviant.

At only 104 pages long, this is by far the shortest book of the author’s career.  One plainly sees this is an incomplete work, just as it should be.  There’s really no way to wrap it all up and put a pretty bow on top, as other memoirs of famous dying people often do, and Hitchens’ previous release Hitch-22 pretty much already covered all the bases of a career from A to Z.  This is a closer examination of the “W-X-Y-Z” period of a man’s existence, embellished with far more personal revelations that previously released.  We all know how this book is going to end, and the engrossment comes not from some 24th-hour surprise or late conversion, but rather from Hitchens’ poignant honesty, his refusal to airbrush his own angst which ultimately becomes the acquiescence of fate.

Indeed, while all of Hitchens other masterful works challenged us to think and taught us how to live, Mortality teaches us how to die, with honesty and dignity, while remaining true to ourselves.  And that might be Hitchens’ most poignant parting gift to us all.

 

hitchens-book-review

 

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Posted by on Oct 19, 2012 in Blog, Travel, What's Left | 0 comments

My Great Privilege — Meeting a World War II Veteran

American Veteran Photo

 

In few more years, they’ll all be gone.

Every one of them.

The millions who marched on foot across a continent and who sailed the high seas some 70 years ago are slowly but surely leaving us.  They pass away at the rate of thousands per year, which will gradually come to a few hundred, and then to a trickle.  In another decade or so, they will be no more.

They are what has been called “the Greatest Generation.”

When times were the toughest, they endured it.  When duty called and the bell of national service rang, they answered it.  When our way of life and liberty was at stake, they defended it.  And when it was all over and some came home, they honored and remembered those who didn’t.

They are our heroes.

Indeed, most aren’t young anymore.  Most have seen and suffered far more than any human should endure.  They don’t play on sports fields.  They aren’t moviestars.  They aren’t rich or famous.  But they are far more special than any of those superficial icons with fleeting illusions of accomplishment.  They are the survivors and the victors of the last century’s most trying test.  They are the champions.  The champions of the world.

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Posted by on Sep 12, 2012 in Blog, General Poker, Las Vegas, Video 1, World Series of Poker | 3 comments

Players Television Network — Looking Back on the Life of Stu Ungar

Photo by Ulvis Alberts (1981)

 

Writer’s Note:   Last week, Stu Ungar would have celebrated his 59th birthday (Birthdate — September 8, 1953).

 

The short-lived Players Television Network debuted at the 2005 World Series of Poker.

I was asked to moderate two panel discussions, which were later broadcast via “On Demand.”  The first show was on the late great poker legend Stu Ungar.  The second show was a panel discussion about the business of online poker.

I wasn’t at all prepared to assume the role of moderator.  I recall leaving the rigors of my job at the WSOP for an hour our so, getting abruptly fitted with a microphone, and then walking out and taking a seat in front of a live studio audience and rolling television cameras with no script.

The good thing about the unrehearsed format is that everything was spontaneous.  The bad thing is the show could have been much crisper had I been prepared.  Looking back now, I certainly would have asked more penetrating questions than what appear here.

Fortunately, the four guests who appeared on the Stu Ungar segment were outstanding.  Madeline Ungar (Stuey’s former wife), Stefanie Ungar (Stuey’s Daughter), Larry Grossman (Las Vegas radio personality and gambling authority) and Peter Alson (writer and my co-author on Stuey’s biography “One of a Kind”) were all in top form.

In the coming weeks and months ahead, from time to time, I’ll be writing more about my personal recollections of Ungar — particularly during that tragic final year of his life when I spent the most time with him.  I look forward to telling some stories that were not included in the book which might interest poker fans.

In the meantime, here’s the panel discussion from 2005 that runs about 30 minutes in length.

 

 

 

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Posted by on Aug 23, 2012 in Blog, Book Reviews, Essays | 2 comments

Remembering “Doctor Love” — Leo Buscaglia

 

Dr. Love Photo

 

I chose to define courage differently than most.

To many, courage is associated with conflict.  The most obvious example of conflict occurs with war.  Sometimes brave acts are performed by extraordinary people in the most trying of circumstances which, no doubt, merits the badge of courage.

But courage is manifested in other ways, as well.  In more everyday settings, not by brave soldiers, but by common people.  By us and people like us.

Alas, we all have the capacity to perform courageous acts and be courageous.  Our challenge is to avoid taking the easy road in life and pursuing the paths of greatest resistance.  To do the things that are the most difficult.  To stand for the things that are least popular.  To fight for the things that are noble and good.

Indeed, courage can manifest itself in much simpler ways.  It need not be a grandiose undertaking.  It need not be associated with parades of publicity.  Rather, some of the most meaningful acts of courage begin with a simple spoken word, a phone call, a smile, or a touch.  Which is not to say these simple acts of kindness are easy.  Some are painstakingly difficult.  Which is what makes them courageous.

The man I’m writing about today spoke, wrote, and lived with passion.  Sadly, he  is no longer with us.  But his many inspirational thoughts and ideas remain with us.  They have become his legacy.  They were his gift to us.  One of the most profound things he wrote was the following:

“It’s not enough to have lived.  We should be determined to live for something.  May I suggest that it be creating joy for others, sharing what we have for the betterment of personkind, bringing hope to the lost and love to the lonely.”

What a beautiful idea.

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Posted by on Aug 2, 2012 in Blog, What's Left | 0 comments

An Intellectual Lion: Gore Vidal (1925-2012)

Gore Vidal Photo

 

Gore Vidal died yesterday.

In obituaries which appeared over that last 24 hours, he’s been described as a writer and protagonist.

He wrote.

He ran for office (losing both times).

He commented.

He thought.

And, he provoked — and he certainly did that far better than most.

Like his more recent now deceased contemporaries Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, and William F. Buckley and in the mold of great thinkers of yesteryear such as H.L. Mencken, Upton Sinclair, and even Mark Twain, he was a fixture on the intellectual circuit.  He basked in the spotlight in a time when writers were afforded the same celebrity as rock stars.  One colleague pined, “he was the man who knew everyone.”

Vidal was a wildly controversial figure, no doubt.  Audiences — those who cared enough about society and culture to follow his ceaseless parade of provocation, now increasingly dissolved in what’s spawned into a grotesque 140-character Twitterized world — would describe his ideas as eccentric and hopelessly out of touch.

As if that’s a “bad thing.”

To the contrary.  We need more eccentrics.  We need more thinkers who are out of touch.  And, we need more Gore Vidals.  And sadly, we now have one less.

The intent of a great writer and meaningful prose should not be — to be right all the time.  Writing, discussion, debate, inquiry, and ultimately provocation is not about prim and proper conformity to expectations and comfort zones.  Indeed, great writers should shun such a horrifying prospect.  You will forgive me for admitted bias, but whatever inside the box “is,” the thinker should be standing on the outside and perhaps as far away from the middle as possible.  And few stood any further from the apex of old-fashioned traditions as Gore Vidal.

Indeed, great writer does not necessarily implant what one must think.  But he (or she) should inspire one TO THINK.

There is a profound difference.  And no one understood that different better than Vidal and his fellow lions of intellect.

Gore Vidal did plenty of thinking, urging others to contemplate their own existence, their own sense of right and wrong, during an 86-year adventure, ultimately a fruitful life filled with the handiwork of books, plays , articles, essays , debate appearances, speeches, and participation in all forums which encouraged the free exchange of ideas.

This has been a tough year for writers, no doubt.  Eight months ago, we lost Christopher Hitchens, a thinker of extraordinary immensity.  Now, we have lost another.

Although I never met Vidal, I think of myself as someone who knew him — through his words and ideas.  Perhaps his greatest contribution and of those like him was to inspire others to carry on and push the envelope of ideas, to challenge conventionalism, and blaze new paths towards enlightenment.

In your memory, Mr. Vidal.  Thank you.

 

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