The Universal Notebook: Beem gets all touchy-feely

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Our dog Rudy had eye surgery last week, so he has to wear one of those awkward, embarrassing plastic cones to keep from scratching his right eye.

He was OK with it after the initial clumsiness of bumping into doorways and stairs, but in the wee hours the other night the pain medication must have worn off and maybe the itching started. Whatever the reason, he was whining and fussing and thrashing about trying to get out of the cone.

At 4:30 a.m. I took him outside, where he proceeded to try to scrape the cone off in the new spring snow and to eat grass, which he often does when he is stressed and his stomach is upset. When I went back to bed at 5 a.m., Rudy climbed into bed between Carolyn and me, and I did my best to comfort him by patting and massaging his back and legs, curling around him and draping my arm over him, soothing him until he finally fell asleep for a short spell.

Pain has a powerful way of concentrating attention, but it is, after all, only a sensation. Offering a counter sensation, such as a massage or a gentle touch, seems to reduce the pain, at least provide a brief distraction. The sense of touch is a primal force in the lives of sentient beings like dogs and cats and people. It is the first sense to develop and it has life-long, far-reaching effects. People deprived of loving touch as infants can have serious personal and social problems in later life.

Self-soothing is a form of touch that has a calming effect on little children. They do things like suck their thumbs, rock rhythmically in their cribs, or, as I did, run their fingers over satin blanket trim. One of our daughters used to slip her hand inside her mother’s sleeve to feel the smooth skin along the inside of her wrist. Apparently, such touching lowers blood pressure and heart rate and releases hormones and peptides associated with positive emotions.

To relax the kids when they were little, I sometimes “painted” their faces, lightly tracing patterns along their foreheads, around their eyes, down their noses, around their mouths and along their jaws. They found this effleurage mesmerizing and calming. Grooming behavior in apes has a similar effect and is an import source of emotional and social bonding.

When I saw a television news report about volunteer “cuddlers” at hospitals and adoption centers, I started thinking I might offer my services as a “cuddler” when I retire. Cuddlers provide human touch when birth parents are unable to do so. As gruff and grouchy as I may be, I’m really an old softy. It would probably come as a surprise to some that I love to hold little babies. Some of the best moments of my life were spent walking our babies around the house at night, lulling them to sleep with repetitive motion and sound.

Carolyn serenades babies with “Hush, Little Baby” and James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James,” but my go-to lullaby is just a slow, somnambulant vocalization (I’m not sure I’d call it singing) of Dave Van Ronk’s “Tell Old Bill.”

“Tell old Bill/when he comes home/ he better leave those downtown girls alone/ this morning and evening/so soon.”

The lyrics are not entirely appropriate, but the tune falls within my limited vocal range, I know the words, and it seems to do the trick. By the time I’ve droned through “Tell Old Bill” a few times, I usually have a small child asleep in my arms, a feeling I truly love.

Holistic health-care professionals now appreciate the healing power of touch and the therapeutic value of massage. Therapy dogs and companion animals have also been recognized as comforting presences in hospitals and nursing homes. Stroking the fur of a docile canine is good for your health, good for your peace of mind. So when Rudy needed a little physical comforting it would have been ungrateful of me to just roll over and go back to sleep.

Touch is the most immediate form of contact. It reassures us that we are not alone in the world. It is an act of connection and of solidarity. It is so simple and yet so profound. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

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