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Gene Weingarten: Grandpa was cool; the machine says so

WASHINGTON — My maternal grandparents were not "cool." They may have been the least cool people on Earth. They were from the Old Country, and all their clothes seemed to have been hand-sewn from brocaded Latvian draperies. At dinner, they tucked their napkins into their collars. Things got even worse when they spoke: It's simply impossible for anyone to sound cool with a Yiddish inflection. Even Samuel L. Jackson wouldn't be able to pull that off: "Enough already with these farshtinkeneh snakes on this fershlugginer plane!"

My grandparents' terminology was always a generation or two behind technology. They kept food in the "icebox," they "listened" to TV, and they wished I would stop playing that farkakte rock 'n' roll on the "Victrola."

Most comically of all, they called our car "the machine," as in, "Are you going to walk or take the machine?" This was a source of enormous amusement to the preteen me, and so it stopped me cold the other day when I heard myself telling my wife, "I'll be off the machine in a minute." I meant my computer.

I decided, right there, that my New Year's resolution is to finally de-geezerize my own speech.

It's not going to be easy. My brain is obsolete: One morning my daughter and I arrived at my car, in which we found her cell phone. She had left it there overnight. Concerned that the phone might be out of juice, I asked her: "Is it still wound up?" She started laughing, and then so did I, and in a few seconds we had to pull over for reasons of safety.

To me, anything containing recorded data is a "tape." CDs are tapes, and DVDs are tapes, and when you TiVo something you are "taping" it, and an important reporting tool is a "tape recorder," even though all of these things have been digital for a decade. In terms of state-of-the-art language, "tape" is pretty much in "horseless carriage" territory. I don't know the difference between a "server" and a "browser." When I hear either term discussed knowledgeably, I am filled with secret shame and an urge to flee, like an illiterate confronting a restaurant menu.

And so we come to my New Year's resolution. I vowed to turn over a new leaf, or, in hipper terminology, to recall myself and roll out a version 2.0. Which led me to do some research for this column, which is how I learned some things about my grandfather — the boring, brocaded drapery guy with the napkin at his neck — that I didn't know before.

I was young when he died. I'd known he'd been an immigration lawyer in New York, but my mom didn't tell me much more. After he died, she destroyed his papers at his request. Some recently archived online documents filled in the blanks.

It turns out he was an associate of Clarence Darrow and a go-to guy for America's anarchists of the early 1920s, a reviled minority targeted by government witch hunts. He advised Emma Goldman, the firebrand feminist and free-love advocate who championed the rights of the industrially oppressed and served prison sentences for inciting riots and plotting the political assassination of a ruthless plutocrat. My grandfather once risked censure from a congressional committee to help accused communists stage a hunger strike at Ellis Island. In a magazine interview, a famous Italian anarchist revealed that when he had to put in safekeeping some photographs that might have gotten his confederates, um, executed, he smuggled them to the only man he could trust . . . my grandpa. One source says that my grandfather had so exasperated J. Edgar Hoover that Hoover made him the first member of an unofficial "enemies list."

Whatever else he was, Grandpa wasn't a fuddy-duddy. He was about as uncool as Che Guevara. It turns out, if you can't talk the talk, you can still walk the walk. And to think, I learned it all on the machine.

Gene Weingarten can be reached at You can chat with him online at noon Tuesdays at

Gene Weingarten: Grandpa was cool; the machine says so 01/02/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 2, 2010 3:30am]
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