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Monday, August 09, 2004

Very hairy celebrities whom I have met and tickled

Seeing this story today brought back memories:

Koko, the famous talking gorilla from Woodside who can communicate through sign language, had surgery for more than two hours on Sunday to heal a toothache, according to Stanford spokeswoman Sarah Sherwood.

After Koko continually complained about the aching tooth, her handlers at the Gorilla Foundation developed a pain chart and asked the 300-plus-pound primate to tell them on a scale of one to 10 how bad it hurt.

She gave it an eight....

Koko, who celebrated her 33rd birthday on the Fourth of July, earned international fame for her 1,000-plus word vocabulary, which on Sunday included a request to meet her doctors before the anesthesia was administered.

The possibilities that apes could communicate using American Sign Language — which is quite a rich and expressive, albeit unconventional, human language — was a topic that fascinated my anthropology professor at UT-Austin back in the late 1970s — the late, highly esteemed Symmes Chadwick Oliver.  The multitalented Dr. Oliver (who also wrote cowboy novels under the rather snappier name "Chad Oliver") taught a required, but nevertheless extremely popular course in the Plan II Honors Program's curriculum, and it was through his teaching that I first learned of Koko.

My paramour of that era also was in Plan II, and when she took Dr. Oliver's course a year after I did, she was also very intrigued upon learning of this research.  When she found herself at a loss while searching for a proper topic to propose for her Plan II Senior Project (essentially a mini-dissertation to be based upon independent research), I suggested that perhaps she could wrangle a summer job helping out the folks at Stanford who were working with Koko.  And so it came to pass.  Unfortunately, the summer spent apart was not good for our relationship.  But just a few weeks before we broke up in the late summer of 1978, I flew to the West Coast to help my soon-to-be ex-significant-other make the long drive back to Texas; and just before leaving, I was properly, if briefly, introduced to Koko.

Koko, paintingI wish I could report that we engaged in charming repartee.  But we didn't.  I knew only a very little bit of ASL, and she apparently found me a boring guest.  Even with the help of translators, Koko quickly decided that all I could possibly be good for was a game of chase-and-tickle.  She was very fast; she liked to be tickled and to tickle back; and she had scary-strong fingers.  (The skin over my ribs the next day looked to have been lightly pounded, repeatedly, with a ball-peen hammer.)

I've always been a bit disappointed that there hasn't been more apparent progress since the late 1970s and early 1980s in this research — and I don't know whether that reflects my ignorance of the field, or instead the limitations of her species or our own.  (It's probably all three.)  Oh, well.

Coming soon in Beldar's celebrity encounter blogpost series:  Cheryl Tiegs in the elevator of the Plaza Hotel in New York; Peter Fonda and Susan St. James on the 50-yard-line of UT's Memorial Stadium; John Travolta in the lobby of the Four Seasons-London; Evel Knievel in the Cabaret Bar of Austin's Driscoll Hotel; Randy Newman in the Aspen airport; and George H.W. Bush at Otto's Barbecue in Houston.  Stay tuned!  (Spoiler:  None of the above was nearly as hairy as Koko, and none of them would play tickle with me either.)

Posted by Beldar at 06:30 PM in Humor | Permalink

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