My father, Herbert Stein, a braino economist, once said that the goal of people who work always should be to do something that returns more value than its cost of effort.

I never could figure out how to apply that in the lovable swamp of Hollywood. But I did figure out a way about 10 years ago to do something that always provided psychic and emotional income beyond its cost: call my parents.

They were in Washington, D.C., and I was in L.A., but I could pick up the phone and call them many times a day, and I did.

I called my mother when she was at home alone to ask her what she had for lunch. I called my father at his office to ask what he had for lunch. I called them in the evening to ask them how the fifth rerun of "Murder, She Wrote" went.

I called them in August to ask if it was too hot to go outside and in January to ask if they could see snow flying over the Potomac.

Of course, I also visited them frequently, often for long periods. But I really knew that I was in touch because in a few seconds of pressing buttons, I could hear their sweet old voices.

In 1997, my mother died. I stayed with my father for a couple of weeks and then I began a regimen of calling him like a blizzard. I called him to see what he was doing for lunch.

I called to find out what he was doing in the afternoon. I called him to see if he had plans for dinner, and then I called while I was watching my show or "Jeopardy!" to see if he knew the answers. (He usually would pretend he didn't know them if I had missed them.)

We didn't talk about deep subjects. No discussions of budgetary policy or the nature of a great president. We did talk about the stock market, that totally unknowable mystery, mostly just to hear ourselves talk, and about his grandson, Tommy.

We also talked for hours about the woman he was seeing and was in love with starting about a year after my mother's death.

I brought him my problems, and he brought me the word that I was doing fine and my fears were unfounded and everything would be all right.

He brought me his fears that B., the love of his latter days, had not called him for a day or a half-day. I told him that a social science principle, "revealed preference," proved that what people did rather than what they said was how they felt.

So we connected and calmed each other and kept each other company as he rushed through old age and loneliness and I rushed through middle age and Hollywood.

My father entered immortality on Sept. 8 at the Washington Hospital Center. I cannot call him anymore, and it tears me to pieces. But if I could call him, this is what I would say: "Pop, it's lonely without you. I thought I was calling all those times to cheer you up and do you a favor. Now I realize that you were doing me the favor because you were always there for me, always available, never putting me on hold, never saying you had to call back because you had another call, always willing to make conversation even if you were tired or making your pitiful little solitary dinners.

"Pop, it's scary being the Pop now, without anyone between me and eternity. Pop, it's lonely and scary realizing that I don't have you to tell me it'll be all right and not to worry because it'll all turn out in the end."

But mostly I'd say, "Pop, I used to watch you watching your football and your baseball and I'd think, 'Someday you'll be gone and I'll feel terrible. And someday I'll call you and all I'll get is your answering machine and your voice, but you'll be gone and it'll be agony.' But I never dreamed just how agonizing it would be when I'm sitting here at my desk in Los Angeles and all alone and have no Pop to call. If you knew how sad I am without you, you wouldn't even have died."

Then sometimes I'll snap to my senses and realize how silly that is and that after all, I'm a grown man with a family and a TV show and mortgages and I have to be more sensible.

So now I'll do something sensible and tell you, dear reader, that you should right now pick up your phone and call your parents and your wife or husband and your kids and tell them you love them and how much they mean to you and how miserable you would be without them.

Call every day. You can afford it. You cannot afford how bad you'll feel if you don't call. And you cannot know how glad you'll be that you did call when you still could.

Ben Stein is host of the cable TV quiz show "Win Ben Stein's Money." His father, economist Herbert Stein, was chairman of President Nixon's Council of Economic Advisers.

CAPTION: Herbert Stein, left, the late father of Ben Stein, right.