We made another weekend run down to the Central Valley because my mother needed me to help her with some paperwork related to her stockholdings. Buying and selling stocks has been a hobby of hers since back in her working days. My parents have now been retired for twenty years, leaving Mom with plenty of time to pursue her fascination with Wall Street.
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, my parents didn’t own a computer and didn’t subscribe to a newspaper (unless you include running out for bagels on Sunday morning and hauling home a doorstop-sized New York Times). My mother listened to the stock reports on the radio and, every so often, would have my father drive her to the public library, where she’d pore over the latest Wall Street Journal.
Nowadays, Mom turns on the TV at 5:00 pm every weekday (unless my parents are out to dinner at Red Lobster) to watch the stock reports on one of the five over-the-air stations that can be pulled in out on the rangeland. My parents live in the country, don’t receive cable, and once tried to install a dish antenna on the roof of their house but quickly removed and returned it when they couldn’t get it to work properly. They still don’t subscribe to a newspaper, but they do own a PC. Dial-up connection, of course. Remember those? Ooooooweeeeeeaaaaahhhhshhhhhhhhhhhh… You’ve got mail!
Yep, my parents are stuck in 1995.
About half the time that I call my parents, I am unable to get through because Dad is online, looking at pictures of old cars and checking out the for sale ads (his own Model A Ford sits in the garage). When I see him, he rails about the scourge of internet abbreviations and about how people don’t know how to spell anymore. Meanwhile, Mom is listening to conservative talk radio in the kitchen. When I see her, she bemoans the atrocious grammar of the broadcast personalities and those participating in the call-in shows alike.
My father, who is 81 years old and had never used a computer until he was retired for several years, knows how to Google search terms, send and receive email, contact me via IM (exceedingly rare) and place bids on eBay. Each afternoon (after his daily TV dose of theater and opera goes off the air at 1:00), he logs onto AOL and checks my mother’s stocks. Back east on Wall Street, the market has just closed for the day. He scribbles the prices and progress of each of her stockholdings (XYZ 128.16 +1/8) on a sheet of paper, after which he hunts down my mother (likely tending her roses out front or watering a fruit tree out back) and provides her with the results. Mom then transposes this information into neat columns in her stock notebook. I am impressed with the detail (“See? This is the PE ratio. I am watching this one reeeeaaaalllly closely.”), which looks for all the world like a Stone Age version of an Excel spreadsheet. I am tempted to make a bad Fred Flintstone joke here, but you know, poor Mom.
My mother assures me that she knows how to look up her stocks online without any assistance, thank you, but that she lets my father do it because he’s online anyway and, goodness knows, he sure doesn’t do anything else around here. She then proceeds to gripe about how he goes to bed early, sleeps until 10 every day, and then takes two hours to get ready and have his cereal with blueberries, which he finishes just in time for his theater and opera show. Meanwhile, she tells me, she herself couldn’t possibly sleep past 7:30 or 8, at which time she gets up and does all the work around the house with no help at all from peacefully snoring Dad. I did not exactly ingratiate myself to her when I offered that I plan to do exactly the same when I retire and that I, too, do nothing around the house. My wife enthusiastically vouched for the veracity of my assertion. Like father, like son, hey?
My mother has an armload of college degrees and has always been a smart cookie. Her investments are about as conservative as her politics, but she does make money. Not a lot, mind you, but the quarterly dividend checks roll in and when the stock goes up just the right amount, she’ll make a stop at her discount brokerage house on the way to Food Maxx and place an order to sell that sucker. Capital gains tax? Just a part of the game, son, just a part of the game.
“What’s your strategy?” they ask Mom at the brokerage, marveling at her many small victories. “I have no strategy!” she snaps back. The trick, she assures me, is patience. Like a cat, you stay real quiet and wait for just the right moment and then… Pounce!
Let’s just say that I am seriously impressed with Mom. What I find particularly amazing about my mother’s investments is that most people spend money on their hobbies, but she makes money from hers. Whether you’re into golf or sewing or travel or collecting things (or, in my own case, attending Scrabble tournaments), it’s always a money pit. It would be wonderful if one day I, too, manage to find a formula for doing something I enjoy and have the checks roll into my mailbox every three months or so.
Nah, ain’t happening. I’d rather sleep until ten like Dad.
Dial-up modem notwithstanding, my parents do have cell phones. They each have their little TracPhone, which Dad likes to hang on his belt when he goes out, while Mom keeps hers tucked in her purse. My sisters and I find those two cell numbers mighty convenient for times when Dad is online again and we just have to tell Mom something right now. All three of us know that if the house phone is busy, you call Dad’s cell, which may be plugged in to charge somewhere, so if there’s no answer you proceed to calling Mom’s cell. My father even knows how to navigate his little black and white screen to key in his contacts. It took my parents years to advance to this stage, so I suppose I should be grateful that they’re not still stuck on a plain black wall phone and no “answering machine.” Really, Mom, you know it’s called voicemail, right? My wife reminds me that rolling one’s eyes is impolite, mister.
Of course, my parents still don’t text. Even their funky TracPhones have that capability, but my parents are just not interested. Texting leaves Mom cold. If she can’t see my face, at least she wants to hear my voice. I guess I should be flattered, but oy, Mom, it’s a pain in my tokhes when I need to tell you one little thing and can’t without getting on the phone with you for an hour. I don’t always have an hour, Mom. What? You don’t have an hour for your old mother? Not when I’m at work, Mom! Not when I’m at the supermarket, Mom! Not when I’m barreling down the 99 and I know I’m about to hit that dead spot between Nicolaus and Natomas. The upshot is that you lose out on a lot of stuff that might bring a smile to your face and make your day. To date, my arguments have been unsuccessful.
Mom and Dad have now become accustomed to the way it is when my wife and I are visiting. Most of the time, we have our iPhones out. It’s not like we’re texting all the time or anything, but we keep one eye on email and my wife is aware when someone posts a comment on her Facebook status.
My phone buzzes. “What was that?” Mom asks. I have a new follower on my blog, I tell her. Ohhh, she says sweetly, do you still do that? Barely, I tell her. These days, I only have time to post on Sundays. But do you still have a lot of followers? I don’t feel like explaining that followers don’t just go away; you have to be really boring for them to take the time to go into their WordPress Dashboards and unfollow you. It’s okay, Mom, I wish I could say. I’m so glad that you don’t really understand about this stuff and that you don’t read my blog because I write about you quite a lot and some of the things that have come out of my fingers would make the hair stand up on your graying head.
My father’s eyes dart back and forth between my wife’s purple phone and my orange one. And he sighs. Maybe we’ll have to come into the 21st century eventually, he offers. “I really, really wish you would!” I reply. It’s not that expensive anymore, I tell him. The prices have come way down from when Apple first came out with this. Dad is very good about keeping his TracPhone charged, but should I tell him about wifi and 4G? He is impressed when Mom asks me for the address and phone number of one of my cousin’s ex-wives and it takes me about 30 seconds to locate the information on my phone. “It’s really quite useful,” I say of my iPhone. I want to tell Mom that she can tap an icon and see the latest prices of her stocks, but I bite my lip and refrain.
If my parents are to take the plunge off the deep end, I know it will have to be Dad first. I wonder whether we should just get it over with and buy them a pair of iPhones with protective covers in some cutesy his ‘n hers colors. Wouldn’t it be great if I could text Dad “good morning” every day?
I know, Dad, not before 10 a.m.