Ben Stein this week uses his column to lay a thousand-word guilt trip on his son. Never mind that entire book he wrote about the joys of fatherhood, the main point that Stein wants to get across right now is that parenting is all about the joyless struggle to make money to support one’s children. For consider the sacrifices Ben is making for the sake of his son:
I think of this as I shlep through the airport security line with my heavy bags (Willy Loman style), as crazy people sit in front of me on the plane, trying to break my nose by throwing their seatbacks onto me, and as I wake up early to travel to the next destination…
Right now, today, thank your parents for working to support you. Don’t act as if it’s the divine right of students. Get right up in their faces and say, ‘Thank you for what you do so I can live like this.’ Say something. Say it, so that when they’re at O’Hare or Dallas-Fort Worth and they’ve just learned that their flight is canceled and they’ll have to stay overnight at the airport, they will know you appreciate them.
Yes, Stein is comparing himself to Willy Loman – and, to drive the point home, he even quotes Death of a Salesman at the end of the column. (He also, inexplicably, quotes three whole words of Hart Crane’s modernist masterpiece Voyages, for no discernible reason.) And he seems to think that the tragedy of Willy Loman is that he was doing it for the kids:
O, golden children, you get to talk about how you’ll never ‘sell out,’ and meanwhile your parents stay up late in torment, thinking of how they can pay your tuition. Because, brilliant kids, work (business) involves exhaustion and eating humble pie and going on even when you think you can’t. And you are the beneficiaries of it in your gilded youth.
The weird thing is that Stein, as he never tires of informing us all, has more money than he’ll ever spend. He has multiple houses, multiple cars, millions of dollars in retirement accounts, and he’ll be 65 next year. Insofar as he’s still schlepping through airport security lines with heavy bags, he’s not doing it for his son. And I’m quite sure he’s never stayed up late in torment, thinking of how he can pay his son’s tuition.
Stein has probably done so many maudlin homages to his father at this point that he felt he had to change it up a bit, and instead talk about himself as a father, and not just as a son. But the self-pity act rings dreadfully hollow, especially from a man as preening and arrogant as Stein. And besides, I’d like to think that on Father’s Day all fathers get honored, not just the ones fortunate enough to have found steady employment with which to support lazy college students.
Fatherhood isn’t some kind of contest to see who can hold down the most soul-destroying job, and judging by this petty column it’s Ben Stein who really needs to grow up a little.