Der Tag. It is my 60th birthday. It is also Thanksgiving. It is a beautiful, sunny, clear but cool day. The plan here is to have lunch at the California Yacht Club out at Marina del Rey. This will serve to celebrate my birthday as well as Thanksgiving. We are going in two cars: my 2001 Cadillac DeVille DTS and Tommy's powerful Subaru WRX. Wifey and I are in the Caddy and Tommy and his pals Boris and Vlad are in the WRX.
You know how crazy I am, so the following little drama will probably come as no surprise to you. Tommy yelled at me that he wanted to race along Olympic Boulevard west of Barrington, where the road was wide and deserted. I said it was fine, and we peeled out. I won by the next block. I should say, to be accurate, that Tommy's car did not make a peeling noise because it has four-wheel drive. Mine made a peeling noise. My wife was telling me I was insane.
Tommy wanted to race again. We did. Again, I peeled, and he didnÃ-t. This time he got way ahead of me. Alas, moments later a police cruiser appeared behind him with its lights flashing. The car pulled Tommy over and I followed them. But the police, staring at me intently, motioned to me to stay in my car. They then went over to Tommy. Then they came to me. "We're just giving him a warning, because we know who you are and we like you," said a policeman. "But you should talk to your son. He refuses to admit he did anything wrong."
"Well, it's really my husband's fault," my wife said helpfully. "He's 60 years old and he should know better."
The policeman shrugged and went off.
Tommy was furious. He blamed me. He was sure I had somehow set it up. I tried to point out to him that it was because of me that he didn't get a ticket. He was furious anyway and very rude at dinner.
Well, so much for my one and only 60th birthday dinner (or lunch). It was a sullen, anger-charged affair. I wish some drug company would invent a med that counters the effects of teenage years, just as they have drugs that counter manic depression or PMS feelings. Maybe that's in the offing.
However, then Tommy went out with his pals and seemed a lot more cheerful later. I had a late supper with a friend from Fox News, and the day was not wrecked. But a pattern is developing with Tommy that is worrisome. More about it soon.
In any event, I refuse to let Tommy occupy all of the space in my head. What's more, I try to work with systems and to learn lessons and here are a few I have learned as of my 60th birthday:
1. I am unbelievably lucky:
a. To be an American;
b. To have my wife, the world's finest human;
c. To have never been severely or at least life-threateningly ill;
d. To have never been in combat;
e. To have had loving, caring, prosperous parents;
f. To have an interesting, well-paid career;
g. To have great friends, a great sister, nephew, niece, cousins, and above all, son;
h. Above all, to have learned to love and worship a God of love and understanding.
2. Compared with the huge problems that most people face, I have almost no problems at all.
3. I am a supremely lucky person, but what happens to me is not terribly important, to put it mildly.
4. Almost any "problem" I have can be dealt with by rest, reflection, and conversation with someone who cares about me, usually my shrink, the genius Paul Hyman.
5. There is no medication on this earth as potent in curing my ills as the simple prayer, "Thy will be done."
6. There have probably been about 15 billion people on this earth since the dawn of man, and I am among the most fortunate few hundred thousand, and all of that is an unearned gift of God.
7. Modest application of self-discipline in the area of study, work, and saving yields stupendous returns over time.
8. The amount the government can do to affect my happiness in a free society is tiny.
9. I am blessed beyond measure to be protected by the brave men and women of this country's armed forces and nothing I can do can adequately repay them, but they have my total gratitude and what little acts I can do.
10. The whole purpose of my life on this earth is to do what I think God wants me to do, which is mainly to love and care for my fellow man and woman.
11. Dogs and cats are my best friends and they are a special gift from the Almighty.
12. I make a great many mistakes and always will, and to expect myself not to make them is pure folly.
Anyway, that is a very short version of what I have learned.
Notice I talk a good talk. And in many aspects of my life, I walk a halfway decent walk. But in my life with my son, I am a stone fool.
Last night, Tommy very charmingly sidled up to me as I was reading the Wall Street Journal at our home in Beverly Hills. He said he wanted to know if he and a couple of his friends could drive out to the house in Malibu. "Will you be really, really neat and not do anything dangerous?" I asked him.
"Of course," he said.
"Will you swear to not start a fire or do anything that could endanger our house?" I asked him.
"Of course," he said.
"And will you leave the house as neat as you found it, recalling at all times that it's your house, too?"
"Of course," he said.
"I guess so," I answered. "But stay in touch with me by phone all through the night."
Okay. By one a.m., I had gotten calls from three of his friends wanting to know how to meet him there. One of them was bringing a girl. I tried to reach Tommy to tell him to come home right away. No answer on the house phone. No answer on the cell. I was HYSTERICAL. But I also did not feel very well and did not want to make the one hour trek out there in the middle of the night.
So, I tried to sleep and did sleep off and on through the night. I had visions of the house -- which I love like mad -- going up in a wild conflagration, lost to me forever. I could feel my blood pressure going into stroke and heart attack territory. But I finally fell asleep and next thing I knew, I could hear Tommy coming home. That was at about 11 in the morning.
"Did you burn down the house?"
"No, it's all fine," he said.
"Did you make a mess?"
"No, it's all fine," he said and then fell asleep.
Obviously he had been up all night.
Well, that is my own insanity, allowing him to go out there by himself. Anyway, no calls from the Fire Department so I guess it's cool.
Later in the afternoon -- this afternoon -- I drove out to Malibu with a creepy ESP feeling. Sure enough, the house was a mess. Dirty dishes in the sink with uneaten food on them. Singed newspapers outside the fireplace. That's right. OUTSIDE the fireplace, proving that my fears of a fire were well founded. The beds all unmade and messy. Keys missing. Tons of food missing. Well, the food is fine. It's for eating after all.
But as I, who make the family's living and whose health is never great, went about the house cleaning, I called Tommy to ask how he could have made such a mess. He was surly and refused even the slightest admission of responsibility or apology.
Now, here's the point I was promising to get to. It is one of the basic building blocks of human development to admit one's mistakes and to clean up after oneself. This is something so fundamental that if it's missing, the human never progresses past childhood.
Probably, most of the fault for the Malibu house incident lies with me or mostly me. It was idiotic to think that any 17 year old, and especially Tommy, would behave responsibly in a beach house without his father or mother there. (One adult was there, but he was a pal of Tommy's barely 20, and he obviously did little to help.) So, I claim the lion's share of the guilt. But how I wish Tommy could step up to the plate and admit some responsibility. I had a roommate in freshman and senior year of Columbia who simply could not ever clean up after himself or accept any responsibility. He's almost 60 now, and still a huge -- although likable -- baby.
John Gregory Dunne, a true genius who died far too young this year, said in one of his great books, "Having kids is not a day at the beach." How right he was. (He also said, "You often see beautiful young women with much older men, but never with much older poor men." I live by these words of wisdom. John had a great deal of wisdom and he is missed desperately.)
Wow, it is hard to be a parent. At least for me.
A stunning lunch at Morton's with a beautiful, highly capable woman correspondent for CBS's 60 Minutes. Her name is Lara Logan. She's a South African who started covering the apartheid struggle as a teenager and worked her way to being a CBS correspondent in Iraq and then for a year in Afghanistan. She is phenomenally smart and brave. Recently in Afghanistan her Humvee hit a mine and she was thrown into the air almost 20 feet. She landed on her face, bleeding like crazy, and nevertheless reported on TV very soon thereafter with blood coming out of her mouth.
I met her last night when she and I were both guests on CBS's The Late, Late Show and invited her to lunch. Wifey and Phil DeMuth came along. Lara talked nonstop about how bad things are in Afghanistan, how disorganized the U.S. effort is, how undermanned we are there, and how Rumsfeld (according to her) has a plan to sell out Hamid Karzai and the whole democratic movement there. She also talked at length about how unreliable the Pakistanis are and how we can't trust anyone there. She regaled us with tales of the thousands of young Afghans and Pakistanis at the madrassas getting filled with hate and fiction about the U.S. She had nothing but the highest praise for the U.S. fighting man and woman, but she said the State Department endlessly betrays them.
But that was positively upbeat compared to her assessment of the situation in Iraq, which she sees as basically hopeless. The terrorists are out of control and getting more so.
"I'm passionate about fighting these people," she said (referring to the terrorists and "militants"), "because I don't want my kids growing up wearing burkhas."
"You live in London," I said. "There's not much danger of that there, is there?"
"There are millions of Moslems in Britain," she said. "They want to take over and impose sharia there."
"But that's impossible," I said.
"I don't know," she said. "You cannot believe the inroads the militants are making in South Africa. There are so many Moslem women in Durban now covered head to toe except for their eyes. All around the east coast of Africa there are forests of mosques. These people are on the move."
It all terrified me. I want to be in Sandpoint. I want to be in Priest Lake. I want to be among the hearty, happy people of the great inland Northwest. I hope Mr. Bush takes this seriously. If we are fighting a global war to protect free society, it wonÃ-t be won by tax cuts. If it's war, we need to mobilize for war. It's a choice between a society based on love and a society based on fear and repression. We've got to get our act together. We need to take it all a lot more seriously. I am scared. Of course, I am always scared, but now I'm really scared. I don't want to be beheaded.
I don't get it. How did all this bad stuff come along a few years after we were in "The Golden Age" under Clinton? What happened to "The End of History"?
Mr. Bush, you are far more of a wartime president than you may realize.
We finished our lunch (I had fresh tuna) and I got into my Cadillac and drove home to sit by my swimming pool in the sun under a palm tree with my dogs sniffing around the flagstone decking. How long can such a great life last? Is it later than I dare think? I'll say it again, I am scared.
Ben Stein is a writer, actor, economist, and lawyer in Beverly Hills and Malibu. His Diary runs every month in the The American Spectator. These excerpts are taken from our February issue.