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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 1, 2018

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.

Tickling, Shape of Water, How Language Began

It's weird how we can become so concerned about a social problem that we can come up with a new set of rules and then go way overboard in our enforcement -- while nothing is actually accomplished in attacking the underlying problem.

For instance, we went through a spate of absurd over-protective rules like expelling a kid from school for bringing a plastic knife with his lunch so he could cut up an apple -- because, you know, zero tolerance.

Or the weird thing that happened in Guilford County a few years ago, when a teenager of my acquaintance, as non-violent and rule-compliant a girl as you could hope to have in your school, got suspended because she had to borrow her brother's car to get to school. He had left some prescription meds on his front seat, but because they might have been controlled substances, school security officials opened up the car. Warrant not needed because, of course, schoolkids have no rights. In searching the car, they found her brother's Eagle Scout knife, which she had no way of knowing was there. Still, it was a weapon on campus! Drugs on campus!

Bullying is beginning to fall into this category. It's a serious problem -- this aggressive form of social isolation and personal terrorism has made vulnerable children (and adults) miserable and frightened for as long as I've been alive. And children have found that adults are usually quite unhelpful, some of them because they don't want to get involved, and others because their involvement only makes things worse.

So we've got new rules against bullying (rules that should have been in place for centuries as minimums for civilized behavior), but enforcement ranges from pathetically inadequate to absurdly overzealous.

But how can it be otherwise? We all know that there really are bullies -- people who push other people around for the pleasure of feeling powerful at someone else's expense. But much of what passes for banter and humor "among friends" is, in fact, bullying -- cruel and heartless, causing deep wounds to the victims, yet always passed off as "just kidding."

"Can't you take a joke?"

Sure. Try telling me one, and see if I laugh.

Practical jokes don't cease to be bullying just because they're done between friends and they're really elaborate. You see videos of such "pranks" online, many of them involving serious physical pain with a risk of lasting injury, and all the rest of them designed to humiliate the "friend." You know, jokes like the one at the climax of Stephen King's Carrie.

"Don't get angry, it means they like you!"

No it doesn't. It means they think you're helpless and won't strike back.

What's wrong with us as a species that cruel bullying "jokes" seem to be present in most human cultures? Well, I have a theory on where it begins.

Tickling.

Yes, yes, I know this immediately puts me in the category of overzealous humorless prigs, but hear me out on this.

Tickling is one of the main ways that clueless adults interact with children. We've got nothing to say and half the time we can't understand what toddlers are saying. But we can tickle them! And what happens when we do? They laugh!

Everybody's laughing, everybody's having fun, right?

Well, for a lot of little kids, that's absolutely right. As a grandfather who owns a couple of tickle-monster hands, I've seen how, after a grandkid wriggles away from a round of tickling, laughing all the while, she comes bounding back saying, "Again!" or "More tickle!"

And when the little sister sees how much apparent glee the four-year-old was having, she demands to have her turn, too.

So tickling's great, right?

Sure -- little kids are so thrilled to have adult attention, and the sensation of tickling is so new to them, that yes, they beg for more.

Up to a point.

That point comes at the age of five or six (or younger, or older) when the child is actually trying to do something and the tickle-mad adult intrudes into their body space and starts tickling them.

The reflexive response to tickling -- paroxysms of laughter -- completely stops the kid from doing what he or she wanted to do.

Plus, this kid is no longer in diapers, and therefore does not appreciate it at all when the tickling and hysterical laughter are accompanied by the release of sphincter muscles. So the kid yells, "Stop it!" Sometimes the kid yells "no!" the moment the adult makes tickle-hands.

OK, adults who tickle children: How many of you stop at the first "stop" or "no"? Does anyone respect children enough not to attempt to tickle them in the first place? How many children have you tickled until they wet themselves?

And it isn't just children. In college, I went to enough parties to know that one method of flirting is the backrub, a form of extended physical contact that can be, and often is, done in front of a partyful of people who are not getting a backrub, and who understand that the "friendly" back rub is where flirting crosses over into foreplay.

Those who have been present at such massages can attest that an astonishing number of them degenerate into tickle-attacks. And despite screams and demands and cease-and-desist orders, the tickle-assault often lasts up to and even beyond the release of urine.

Needless to say, in most cases this marks the complete failure of the flirtation and can cause lasting enmity and resentment.

The truth is that after the age of four or so, the boundary between tickling and bullying is so thin as to be nonexistent. Tickling is almost always done between somebody physically powerful and a much-weaker victim, and it almost always persists to the point where the victim begs, yells, screams to have the torment cease.

I was an extremely ticklish kid. I hated being tickled -- by anybody -- because I guess I didn't need attention so badly as to buy it at that price. Tickling was a complete loss of control over my own body, and the bully was, as far as I was concerned, a torturer who didn't care how much I hated his ministrations.

My salvation was that someone taught me, about the age of twelve or so, how to stop being ticklish.

I didn't believe it at first, but here was what I was told: They keep tickling you because you laugh. But you can only laugh if your stomach muscles are tightly flexed. If you relax your stomach muscles completely, you can't laugh.

You still feel the tickling, but it has no power to make you laugh if, instead of resisting and trying to curl away from the tickle-hands, you simply relax your stomach.

Then it's just hands and fingers rubbing you weirdly, and instead of sending you into hysterics, it allows you to look at your tormentor with scorn and say, quite coldly, "What are you doing? Get your weird little hands off of me."

Because you're not laughing, they're not enjoying themselves; because you don't surrender control of your body to them, they get bored and stop.

The first few times I tried this technique, it was only partially successful. I relaxed my stomach muscles, and that kept me from laughing, but it didn't stop the tickling from driving me halfway insane.

But then it quickly became completely effective. Ever since, when people try to tickle me, it just makes me angry that they have so little respect for me that they'd assume they had a right to touch my body and try to take control of me.

I think, however, that childhood tickling is where lots of humans get the idea that when a big person does something intrusive against a smaller person, the smaller persons will enjoy it, laughing their heads off. It's a short step from there to the vicious, cruel practical joke.

It's also the foundation of other forms of weird, intrusive physical assaults, like the ones that began when I hit puberty, my metabolism changed, and I started to put on some weight. I remember the first time my Aunt Mary -- a physically demonstrative woman that I thought was cool -- greeted me at the beginning of a visit by reaching down to my waist and gathering a pinch of fat between her fingers. "Getting a spare tire there, eh?"

Yeah, apparently so, but you think it's a Nerf ball that you're free to squeeze without even asking ...

If it had only been Aunt Mary when I was twelve, it would have been tolerable. But everybody thinks they have a right to comment and, far too often, to touch.

I remember in my twenties running into an acquaintance from an earlier time who apparently thought we were at a degree of intimacy that allowed him to greet me by shouting in a public place about how I was putting on weight -- and, like Aunt Mary, grabbing a handful of adipose flesh.

I realized at that moment that this is the reason I should never carry a gun or a cattleprod or a cudgel, because whichever one I had, I would have used it right then.

Fat-grabbing is the orphan stepchild of tickling, and let me tell anyone who has ever done such a thing that when you grab at somebody's body without permission, especially if you're doing it to ridicule them, you are making an enemy for life.

I'm not overly concerned with displaying good manners to people who take insulting, demeaning liberties with me, so what he got from me was a step backward and a cold, "Who do you think you are? How dare you touch me?"

And if I sound like a pre-Victorian insulted woman, then you've nailed my source for such statements. Hyper-formality and icy rejection, along with a clear repudiation of any degree of friendship or acquaintanceship, that's the ticket. Next to me dealing with an unwelcome touch, Mr. Darcy looks warm and friendly to strangers.

But I was bigger than that guy, and we were about the same age. Where tickling way crosses the line is when there is a marked disparity in physical size. When the tickle-victim can't get away and can't physically make you stop, and you don't obey the demand that you stop it, then you are a full-fledged, out-and-out bully.

I recently read -- on Quora, I think -- about a mother who overheard her daughter demanding that an older male relative stop tickling her. The mom was on her way to intervene, since obviously the tickler wasn't stopping, when all of a sudden he gave a yowl of pain.

The tickle-victim had answered an unwelcome attack on her body with a reciprocal attack, in this case a sharp collision of her foot with his scrotum. He was furious and was all for punishing her immediately for her "unprovoked" attack, but Mom was right there to forbid any punishment. "She told you to stop, and you didn't," said Mom.

If you want to teach kids not to be bullies, then start young and teach them that it isn't funny to assault people, even if the victim is laughing. Laughter doesn't always mean people are having fun. Tickling the three-year-old who loves it and comes back saying, "Again!" is, quite literally, child's play.

But the moment they greet your tickling overtures with obvious dread, revulsion, fear, or annoyance, then you, as an adult, need to respect the boundaries the child is trying to establish. What the child and onlookers learn is that you respect personal boundaries. And if you do it with a genuine apology and then you refrain from complaining about it or even talking about it afterward, you might actually succeed in making it so that children don't shy away from you when you come into the room.

Because after that fat-grabbing move by my Aunt Mary, I never again allowed her to get within grabbing range of me. This did not punish her at all -- I doubt she noticed -- but I knew she could not be trusted to treat me with normal human respect. And this is how incessant child-ticklers end up losing all possibility of closeness with their younger relatives and acquaintances.

Am I making something big out of something "harmless" and "fun"? Yeah, you bet. Because bullying begins somewhere, and it needs to end somewhere. If you show respect and self-restraint, then you may just raise kids who don't think bullying is funny or fun.

Just think: The beginning of peace and love comes when you take "stop it!" for an answer.

*

The trailer for The Shape of Water looked promising. A young woman working in a top-secret lab befriends a water-dwelling creature imprisoned there. It's your standard monster movie, only the monster never gets a chance to do any monstering because he's immediately made lovable.

But I hate monster movies, so skipping the scary part is actually a plus.

From the trailer, you already know the Splash-like plot: Hagrid's magical creature is going to be killed, so the girl has to rescue it and return it to the wild rather than allow the scientists to continue mistreating it.

And the cast looks really good. So ... my wife and I decided that it was worth seeing.

Oh, boy, were we wrong. Deeply, abysmally wrong. We'll never get those two hours back.

The movie got a 92% rating from Rotten Tomatoes, so apparently there's another version of the movie going around, because the one I saw was howlingly bad right from the start.

Not for one second does any scientist act like a scientist. Nor does any soldier act like a soldier. Nor does any cleaning lady, or laboratory security official, or even any advertising illustrator, act or think or speak like anybody in the real world.

Of course, we're supposed to instantly love and care about the young woman because she's mute. Apparently she lost her voice because of an injury that left scars on the side of her neck. You know, six inches away from her larynx, so there's no way that anything that might cause those scars would cause physical injury to her voice. But she's mute. She can hear people talk, but she talks to them with her hands.

This ability to hear is important because she has some kind of relationship with a neighbor in her apartment building who paints embarrassingly bad, Hallmark Movie-level art, for an advertising agency. In the constant struggle to remain solvent, the company decides not to use his very-much-worse-than-Norman-Rockwell painting in their ad campaign, so he's sad.

He's also a bit of a boor, pushing his young neighbor into eating things she hates -- especially a toxic-looking green-gelatin pie. But we know he's OK because he turns against a pie-shop counter man who used to be a friend when he reveals that he's a racist.

In this top security lab, cleaning ladies are allowed into a room with an open tank containing a chained-up "creature" (rubber suit, gills, cute little cupid's bow lips). Security is so lax that our heroine gets plenty of alone time with Mr. Swimmy, signing to him and playing him music. He likes watching her dance -- apparently she had tap lessons as a kid.

And she brings him hard-boiled eggs to eat. That always worked on me. The way to a monster's heart is through his stomach; everybody knows that.

But wait. This is an art film, so along with the completely unbelievable high-security lab with its absurdly evil scientist (Michael Shannon, trailing clouds of Zod), we also get a voiceover from ... somebody ... getting all poetic and symbolic as we watch Sally Hawkins float under water.

She also has slimy fish sex with the creature but that's OK, because we've already seen her naked as often as we would in an episode of Game of Thrones. Pointless nudity is a hallmark of art (and also of porn), and after she has floaty-floaty sex with the creature, she tells her work friend (Octavia Spencer) about it, and she marvels that the creature can be so good at sex, what with having no apparent genitals.

Um ... fish don't have coitus. They spawn. The merger of genetic material usually takes place outside the body. Just sayin'.

Did I mention that Octavia Spencer takes her Mammy-like role and acts it to pieces, bringing class to a movie that is otherwise completely stupid in every way that a movie about a water creature can be stupid.

Apparently the film's writers think that if you can breathe with gills and breathe regular air, it means you must have two sets of lungs!

Nobody told them that the gills are the lungs. It's like they made The Shape of Water without involving anybody who ever read a book or, heck, watched Animal Planet or any National Geographic special.

But wait. Maybe the movie was based on a book, so the author of the book is to blame for much or all of the deep, pretentious stupidity of this movie.

No. There's a book, but it was adapted from the film. It might be better than the film, for all I know, because maybe the book's author tried to explain some of the idiocy and give it a way to belong in a rational universe. But the movie script came first.

Look, The Shape of Water is a great title, and the creature-suit doesn't have an obvious zipper on it anywhere. So even though the creature is every bit as cute and unbelievable as the girl ape in the 2001 Tim Burton Planet of the Apes trainwreck, at least the costume isn't technically flawed.

Here's what's completely missing: any effort to explain why she fell in love with this monster and started flirting with him. The filmmakers were so immersed in the monster-movie cliche of falling in love with the monster that they went straight there, without going through an actual monster phase or giving us a character who can talk and therefore give us some clue about what she's thinking.

She just kidnaps him in the laundry cart -- which only existed so monsters could be smuggled out of the lab, apparently -- brings him home, then jams towels under the bathroom door, turns on the bathtub faucet, and fills up the room (causing leaks in the movie theater below) so they can swim and explore artsy forms of carnal knowledge.

Do you want to know how bad this movie is? It made me wish I were watching the Jimmy Neutron movie again, which until this point had been, in my estimation, the worst movie I ever sat through right to the end (because I loved my seven-year-old daughter).

So please, filmmakers, if you want to make a really stupid movie, make sure to include a lot of pretentious artiness in it -- or at least give the hero some kind of physical or mental handicap -- because then critics will see all the stupidity and praise you for being unconventional.

It's kind of fun to watch all those critics roll over and expose their bellies as soon as they think that a movie might be smarter than they are. Then they try to persuade you, Emperor's New Clothes-style, to go see this "beautiful" and "moving" and "brilliant" movie by a story-telling genius, director and co-writer Guillermo del Toro.

Or you can believe me and stay home and stream Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility, which will give you a love story that might conceivably happen in the real world, and which only involves water in the form of splashing through a pond or getting caught in the rain.

Best of all, there are more and better monsters in both Jane Austen flicks -- Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Mr. Collins, Mrs. Bennet, Lt. Wickham, and Lydia; or Willoughby, Lucy Steele, and the ever-prying Mrs. Jennings.

If you really want a movie about people coming to understand a mysterious, monstrous, and dangerous alien creature, then go see Arrival again. By not pretending to be an art film, Arrival is not just great sci-fi, it's also a great human story that really is as deep as The Shape of Water pretends to be.

Real art, not fake art. Real smart, not fake smart. It can be done.

Meanwhile, all the actors in The Shape of Water deserve Oscar Purple Hearts, for classing up a bad movie by doing their job well in spite of the script. The script is so bad that of course they're all going to die, artistically speaking; but they still give it all they've got, because it's often possible to be in a bad movie without being personally bad in it.

Oh, and did I mention? The Shape of Water is nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.

But so is Darkest Hour. So if The Shape of Water wins the Oscar, it won't be because there was no better choice on the ballot.

*

I was in the middle of rereading Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy, in preparation for teaching about it in my class on Fantasy authors at SVU, when I realized that I had never actually read the second and third volumes before.

How could that happen? I loved the first book. How could I miss the second and third volumes? How could I think that I'd read the whole trilogy (and yes, I know there are two other Mistborn books but they aren't part of the three-book sequence) when I obviously never did?

Right now, Brandon Sanderson is getting the most attention for his Stormlight Archive series (three huge books and counting, because George R.R. Martin has not given us enough big thick books that can't finish a story in 5,000 pages), but I have to say that Mistborn, with slightly thinner books and a story that wraps up during the author's lifetime, is still one of the best magical-fantasy stories ever written.

Most trilogies sag in volume two, and, to be accurate, they rarely rise above that level in the finish.

Remember how the original Star Wars trilogy died under the feet of dancing Ewoks in the third movie? Remember how the Matrix movies collapsed under the weight of their own stupidity so that we kept wishing, in the third movie, that somebody would kick us in the head so we could sleep through the rest of it?

Trilogies are hard.

Unless you do what Tolkien did, and write a single long, coherent fantasy that got cut into a trilogy quite arbitrarily by the publisher.

That's what The Final Empire, The Well of Ascension, and The Hero of Ages -- the Mistborn trilogy -- are, a single coherent story told in time order. Each volume is a powerful, complete story in its own right, and each one builds on what came before. There's plenty of action (maybe too much; after a while the blow-by-blow combat between allomancers begins to be as empty and repetitive as Quidditch) and as many shocking character deaths as in Game of Thrones, but it's also full of compelling characters with fascinating lives.

And the Mistborn books may have the best magic system ever invented.

The good news is that the Mistborn books prove that Sanderson knows how to finish a long-form fantasy. Add that to the fact that he's way younger than George R.R. Martin (and Sue Grafton, for that matter), and there's reason to hope that he'll actually live to finish the Stormlight Archive himself. Just eat right and get plenty of exercise, Brandon Sanderson. You've got miles to go before you sleep.

*

And before the six of you who also read my fiction write to the editor to complain that I have a couple of unfinished series of my own, let me point out that I did finish Mithermages, Pathfinder, and at least a dozen standalone books. If you haven't read those, then in my opinion you shouldn't complain about the series that I haven't finished yet.

*

I read Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct when it was new, and I was blown away. But in the years since then, I've studied a lot more about language, much of it under the tutelage of John McWhorter. And it became clearer and clearer to me that while human beings clearly have a need to converse from an early age, there's nothing instinctive about the particular forms that language takes.

In fact, much of McWhorter's work has been devoted to debunking nonsensical claims about language (we have as many words for snow as Eskimos do, because, you know, it snows in many English-speaking countries and we need to talk about it).

And now there's a magnificent new book that, in my opinion either replaces or stands beside Pinker's The Language Instinct, correcting all the really bad science that Pinker acquired from the ever-mistaken Noam Chomsky.

In Daniel L. Everett's How Language Began: The Story of Humanity's Greatest Invention, we get an exemplary demonstration of scientific thinking, as opposed to wild theorizing that resists all evidence.

Everett makes a strong case that Noam Chomsky's theory that humans are born with an instinctive universal grammar is flat wrong.

For one thing, it's perfectly possible to have completely usable languages that have grammar at a G1 level (ours is a G3 grammar). Such languages are not limited or crippled, they're just a different strategy.

Language, says Everett, is about communication -- most specifically, conversation. This should be obvious, but in fact there are serious theories saying that communication is merely an accidental byproduct of language.

Of course, if it isn't for conversation, one wonders what in the world else language might have evolved to do.

Besides giving us a tour of many theories of language, and all the parts out of which language is built, Everett makes a solid case for the premise that language is not a marker of Homo sapiens.

Everett insists -- and he's far from alone in this -- that "humanity," with fire, tools, language, and all, arose with Homo erectus, and that Homo neanderthalensis, the Denisovians, and Homo sapiens all had language from the get-go.

His strongest evidence is the practical fact that long before pretty-faced Homo sapiens came into being a hundred thousand years ago, Homo erectus had already built boats that carried them to many islands that were never connected by a land bridge during ice ages. You don't colonize an island by accidentally landing there after a storm -- you have to be traveling with your spouse carrying your tools with you. Plus, building a viable ocean-going boat is rarely a solo endeavor, requiring cooperation at a level that requires better communication than grunts.

Maybe they could have done all their traveling and colonizing and voyaging without language, but ... come on, really?

Homo sapiens has a vocal apparatus shaped for language, though, and those others don't. Do they?

Everett makes his case that while Homo sapiens is optimized for language, it may well work the other way -- maybe language is optimized for our vocal apparatus. That is, in making language we only use the sounds that we can produce. It's a chicken-and-egg thing.

But the only way we could have evolved to be optimized for language is if our ancestors already had language, and it was useful for survival, so that humans with especially versatile and effective vocal production would have a definite advantage in the game of natural selection.

Sounds logical. Of course, we can make the craziest theories sound logical when we don't have any better ones, but Everett, unlike Pinker (and way unlike Chomsky) doesn't overclaim. He recognizes that new evidence could change the whole picture, the way many discoveries about early humans have forced us to revise many other theories about what our early forebears could and could not do.

Homo erectus is, according to current theory, the direct ancestor of all the later human species -- Neanderthal, Denisovan, and Sapiens. If Everett is right, and H. erectus was already chatting away wherever they went, then there's no reason to think any of the other "cave men" were without speech.

Six thousand years is about as far back as it's possible to extrapolate language development, given our current linguistic tool set. That is, we can develop reconstructions of proto-Indo-European words and forms, but we can't plausibly extrapolate the relationships between language groups as disparate as, say, Nahuatl and Igbo, or Hebrew and Finnish. Maybe they had a common ancestor language, and maybe they didn't, but we can't figure it out from the languages we have today.

There's no way to know whether language appeared once, and then spread culturally throughout the Homo erectus population, or whether it was separately invented in multiple locations and survived because it conferred real advantages on those who used language.

In the midst of such discussions, Everett does a fine job of helping his readers understand the different levels and aspects of language -- the differences among symbols, signals, and such.

By the end of How Language Began: The Story of Humanity's Greatest Invention, I had all the exhilaration of acing a tough semester's class in language theory and history, without having had to suffer through the pain of actually taking the tests and doing the homework.

Instead, I got to listen to a serious thinker explore his reasoning from the available evidence, teaching me everything I needed to know about language theory and linguistics in order to understand his ideas.

It's not light reading. If you want to have fun, read Brandon Sanderson's The Rithmatist. It also makes you think, but you can skip all the detailed geometry and still get a rip-roaring story.

Ain't no ripping and only a little roaring in How Language Began. But with every page you know more about this universal hobby called "conversation," and by the end of the book you get a sense of how the ability to speak became the signature attribute of humanity, without ever getting hard-wired into the brain. Instead, language and culture create each other in every human community throughout the world, from families to huge language groups.

Hey, even the hardest bits of the book are way more fun than watching The Shape of Water. And you end up smarter than you were when you started, so it's all to the good.

Eight Master Classes

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Over five hours of insight and advice.

Recorded live at Uncle Orson's Writing Class in Greensboro, NC.

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