What Can One Do Over?
Ben Stein
by
UC Santa Cruz (YouTube screenshot)

Thursday

It is a perfect morning here in Beverly Hills. Clear cobalt blue skies. Lush palm trees and banana leaf plants. An emerald green lawn. Hollyhocks. Roses. Confederate star jasmine, which not only looks decadently alluring but smells magnificently of some seductive southern perfume. I first smelled it almost 50 years ago when I lived on campus at College V of UC Santa Cruz. The smell still makes me dizzy with a rush of memories of happy days in the redwoods overlooking the Pacific and carefree boys and girls walking along the trails and the footbridges over lush ravines. I was thin and hip then with long hair, and the co-eds loved me.

There were only 1,500 students there then (1972–73). I was one of only two Republicans. Now there are 15,000 students and a prestigious science school, and there is a Republican Club, or so I hear. I had insane fun there in those days. Everything you have heard about the ’60s and early ’70s is true.

Cruelly, as we were living it up in the redwood Garden of Eden, our brothers who were not so fortunate were getting killed and wounded in Vietnam and their families were suffering grief in Iowa City and Salinas and Jackson.

Anyway, we have immense palm trees by our pool here now. Star jasmine climbs 30 feet up them, a shower of white and green against the green palm fronds and the blue sky.

There are four deep green chaises under some palms, and I lie on them, one at a time, and I think of something my shrink asked me a few days ago. I was complaining about something, and he asked me, “If you had your life to do over again, what would you do differently?”

I was shaken. “I would have bought as much Berkshire-Hathaway as I could have every time I had a few dollars saved,” I said, and we both laughed. But when I left the doctor’s office, I thought more about it.

What would I have done differently? I would have taken a lot fewer drugs, especially the illegal ones. I would not have spent so many nights staying up all night chasing a buzz.

Much more important, I would have tried to learn about my mother’s childhood. I wish I had known much earlier she had suffered from having her father killed in a freak snowstorm accident when she was just 10 or 11, and having grown up the smallest and youngest among a domineering brother and sister and a tough, angry mother. Nothing ever would be right in my mother’s life after that, and I wish I had known more about it and been more sympathetic.

I wish I had realized from the first day I met her how saintly a wife I had and treated her with more respect and love. To this day, I have never met a more beautiful, intelligent, forgiving woman than my wife. She is literally superhuman. I have never met a human being with more kindness in her than Alex. Now we are both old. I wish I had spent a large part of my life praising her to her face.

I wish Alex and I had children when we were young. Now we will not live to see much of their lives, and I feel sick about it.

My sister is in many ways an angel. We differ politically on most of everything, but I am extremely lucky to have her, and I wish I had expressed that more when I was younger.

For some reason, I developed wildly extravagant ways of living. This haunts me and terrifies me. I wish I had learned habits of prudence and thrift the way my dear friends Larry Lissitzyn and Phil DeMuth have. I live in dread of winding up broke and homeless. To be sure, it’s an unlikely prospect as you look at my financial and real estate statements, but when I drive by the immense homeless encampments in front of the VA Hospital grounds in Westwood, I get real shivers of fear. If I had learned thrift, that would not be true.

A former literary agent, George Diskant, tried to teach me about both Berkshire-Hathaway and thrift, and I only paid attention to Berkshire, and this may yet come back to kill me.

How I wish I had learned better discipline of eating and exercise and practiced them the way I should have. If the corona doesn’t get me, the bacon will.

I have been in a 12-step program for 32 years or so. Its main focus is making gratitude a huge part of your life. I wish I had started with that in my teens. Not in my 50s. I make long lists of what I have to be grateful for hour by hour — being married to Alex, having my sweet son Tommy and my adorable granddaughter Coco, close pals like Bethany, Phil, Michael, Steve, Norman Lear, Al and Sally, Sid and Martha, David Scull and Bob Noah, Nolan and Barron, and many others, and being an American, having brilliant and well-connected parents who greatly smoothed my path in life beyond what most people can even imagine, never having to have been in combat, studying at Columbia, being a brother of the Alpha Delta Phi, and then a bit of studying at the earthly paradise of Yale Law School, having some modest success in law, economics, fiction, journalism, nonfiction, investing, having loyal pals at The American Spectator like Wlady and Bob, owning (along with the bank) homes in Beverly Hills, Malibu, Rancho Mirage, North Idaho, Washington, D.C., and the list goes on and on.

How I wish I had focused on gratitude more and complaining less.

The Lord has taken incredibly good care of me, and I am getting into years now. So I think I’ll just go lie down by the star jasmine and be grateful under its irresistible scent and smell the grass that the gardeners just cut.

I’ll be a happy guy. I have a lot to tell the shrink the next time I see him. And it’s Memorial Day weekend, so gratitude is the dish of the day.

Ben Stein
Ben Stein
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Ben Stein is a writer, actor, economist, and lawyer living in Beverly Hills and Malibu. He writes “Ben Stein’s Diary” for every issue of The American Spectator.
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