Nerds Know Something That's Why They're Nerds

January 15, 1995|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace.-- Ben Stein, who has done for nerdy what Eddie Murphy once did for obscene, spent two days in Baltimore tTC last November to make those oddball change-of-network commercials broadcast during the holidays by Channel 2.

He liked it. We know this not only because of the pleasant interviews he granted with the local press while in town, but from the effusive account of his visit he has just published in the February issue of the American Spectator. It makes Baltimore sound like a humble paradise, and Mr. Stein sound like -- well, like a good man to have promoting your product.

His hotel, the Stouffer Harborplace, is ''wonderful'' and ''fabulous.'' He likes the local accent, and the intimate little stories that people he's just met recount to him. A driver discusses his Hollywood aspirations, a script person at the station talks to him about the death of her father. ''Baltimore -- City of Shared Confidences.'' He likes the kids in the street who recognize him from his movie role as Ferris Bueller's nerdissimo teacher.

Except for a stale cinnamon roll, the native foods he tries are proclaimed ''delicious'' (crabcakes at Phillips) and ''simply perfect'' (the catered Sloppy Joe given him for lunch at the television station). The Sloppy Joe, in fact, seems to have been one of the high points of Mr. Stein's visit. ''I could barely stop eating it. Simple food made by loving, caring hands. It brought tears to my eyes.'' So did the cake they gave him at the station after he finished doing the commercials, when they found it was almost his 50th birthday.

Is this a put-on? Is Ben Stein laughing at us secretly, the way the smart-alec student Ferris Bueller laughed at him in the film? Perhaps naively, I think not. Despite the smooth professionalism with which they're expressed, Mr. Stein's enthusiasms for ordinary things seem absolutely genuine, no doubt because they remind me of my own.

At 50, he has reached the point at which it becomes only too clear that one's hold on life isn't going to be eternal. This in turn makes life appear particularly precious, even in its most homespun aspects. We don't quite take it for granted any more.

Appreciation for simple things, whether a Sloppy Joe or a sunrise, flows more easily at 50 than at 30. ''I love this life,'' says Benjamin J. Stein, writer and actor, as he finishes his lunch at WMAR. ''I don't want to get old. I don't want to leave this world, not ever.'' It's touching. Most of us wouldn't say such a thing, at least in public, but it's an unlucky 50-year-old indeed who's never felt that way.

To help him deal with being 50, Mr. Stein asked his father, the economist Herbert Stein, to give him some advice. He received the following:

Do not fight over small matters with the ones you love. Keep high aspirations, moderate expectations, and small needs. Liquid assets equal freedom. Invest in your health. Don't fight on every street corner. Be open to appreciate history's legacy of beautiful things. If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am only for myself, what am I? Do your best and don't worry and don't feel guilty; you're not God. It is good to be a member of a team, but not only a member of a team. The nuclear family (spouse and children) is invaluable.

I like that, and so did Mr. Stein Jr., who proudly published it -- while admitting to some reservations about being advised to hold onto his money. He said he prefers his mother's approach to financial matters. She observed that ''when we buy stock we hope for the best, don't expect a lot and don't cry if it goes down, and that goes for everything in life.'' Julius Westheimer couldn't have said it better.

Intergenerational advice is tricky regardless of the age group at which it's aimed, and a lot of what's currently peddled as wisdom is only sentimental nonsense. Some years ago a book called ''All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten'' was a best-seller. It was big on the kinder and gentler virtues, which are fine as far as they go, but anyone expecting to rely on them alone is destined for a career as a victim. Hugs alone don't cut it.

Mr. Stein Sr.'s useful suggestions could be supplemented with a few from his contemporary Irving Kristol, including: Don't expect to be rewarded for your good deeds, at least in this life. Money doesn't buy happiness, but happiness doesn't buy money, either. Wear clean underwear in case of an accident.

It's tempting to add a few more. You can learn a lot more about life and the world by keeping your eyes and ears open where you are than by rushing off to exotic places. Spend as much time as possible on mountains, in small boats, or otherwise out in the weather; if you never get wet, cold, exhausted or scared, you won't properly appreciate being dry, warm, rested and safe. The greatest gift any man can give his children is to love their mother.

And of course, remember that good advice can come from unexpected sources -- perhaps even from Ferris Bueller's nerdy teacher.

4( Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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