Ben Stein

My son is having friends over tonight to play some kind of role-playing game that is similar to Dungeons & Dragons. He’s such a social kid; I really have to be happy about it.

Anyway, I went over to one of my many pieces of property—a condo I use as an office—and worked on my income tax. As I did, I had the immense windows open and a lovely summer breeze wafted in, along with the sound of men at the swimming pool nine floors below.

I listened to Bob Dylan softly on the stereo—maybe I should say “the surround”—and heard him tell about “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” She was a black woman caned to death by a crazed white man in Maryland long ago. It’s a horrible story of racism in action. But in a way, thinking about it uplifts me. That caning—for which the perpetrator got a six months’ suspended sentence, possibly because he was a relative of the governor of Maryland—would be pretty much unthinkable now in Baltimore, Md. I grew up in Maryland when it was largely a Southern state. The schools were segregated. Teachers called black people “coons” right in front of the class, and expected us to laugh about it. The only blacks you saw in good neighborhoods—meaning prosperous neighborhoods—were maids and gardeners. Blacks didn’t even walk down the middle of the sidewalk in Silver Spring. They sort of slunk off to the side with their heads down. I can still remember when I saw a black couple walking cheerily, laughing and smiling on the sidewalk near a department store. I was simply dumbfounded. I guess I must have been about 13, and I was shocked at their self-confidence. I can still vividly recall the principal of our school making a black boy and his white dance partner leave a school dance.

Well, times have changed a lot. That’s the good news. Human dignity is a huge issue and if we can have more of it, we’re doing God’s work.

However, I am still going crazy. I had the best year I ever had last year financially, and money poured down on me like rain in August in Washington, D.C. (Now, this is by my little standards. What I earn in a lifetime is what a successful venture capitalist or a partner at Goldman Sachs makes in a day. I am still operating on the expectations of a GS-11 who started after law school at $195 per week.) But despite that great year of money, I cannot find a dime to pay my taxes. I’ll have to use my line of credit against my house. To be fair, I could find it fairly easily if I sold stock out of my account at E*Trade. But who wants to do that? I can’t time the market and I don’t want to even try. I feel as if I shouldn’t have to pay half of what I earn in taxes anyway. It’s peacetime. It’s government-surplus time. Why do I have to pay so much?

Anyway, in my little mind, resting after my tax work, listening to Mozart’s Requiem (written partly by others, I hear), I started to make a list of all the things on my mind:

  • Doing my taxes;
  • Finding the right guests for my talk show (we really want Bob Dylan and Mike Myers, but we can’t get them);
  • Making Tommy do his homework;
  • Thinking how lonely I’ll be when Tommy goes off to college if he ever does and how much I wish I had more children;
  • How to take care of my three houses, two condos, and one co-operative apartment (I inherited it at the Watergate when my Pop died—I actually own half of it and my nephew and niece own the rest);
  • Whether I should lighten up on tech stocks, of which I now own a lot;
  • Whether I should go entirely to cash;
  • How on earth I am ever going to get exactly the right sound on my stereo without electrocuting myself setting it up.

I started to make a list of what I own in the way of appliances: six refrigerators; innumerable air conditioners central and room; at least 10 computers, almost all Compaqs but a few Dells; so many stereo pieces I can’t keep track of them; a lot of microwaves.

Then I gave up on that because all Americans have those things and they don’t really mean that much. I have them because I’m too lazy to simplify my life, not because I’m smart. I started to think about why if I’m so smart and am a cable-TV star, I start to cry and hyperventilate when I see how much Regis gets paid.

The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers. …

I wrote that. No, just kidding, Wordsworth wrote that.

Never mind, I have to go and supervise my son and his pals playing their nerd games.

I did that and occasionally watched a DVD of Gone With the Wind. Isn’t it amazing that the defining movie of the 20th century in America is so clearly racist—and yet such a spectacular movie?

Then out to my house in Malibu to fight the army of ants who have moved in and taken possession of my bedroom. And to go through the endless boxes of papers and mementoes that the American Enterprise Institute has sent over from my Pop’s office. I really am going to lose my mind if I have to keep reading my parents’ words for the rest of my life and not have them to talk to.