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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  • Aliyah33

    Very sweet, EABeem. Wouldn’t have guessed you could be so tender of heart. Yes, perhaps retirement would provide an opportunity to allow your gentle side to bloom, but I believe it still wouldn’t encompass the likes of “LePage is a jerkwater”. Still, it’s nice to see a softer side. Hope Rudy will be well soon.

    • Queenie42

      So, are nice, tender-hearted folks supposed to keep their mouths shut and be like the good citizens of Germany before WW1? Huh? I know several sweet old lady types who would stomp the stuffing out of windbag LePage and never break a sweat.
      Gentle people must tell the truth. LePage IS a jerkwater.
      Even Christ, himself, threw the nasties out of the temple. What was wrong with that?
      And if you are surprised by Mr. Beem’s tender side, you can’t have been reading this column very long.

      • Aliyah33

        EABeem and any sweet little old lady can go ahead and say whatever they want about LePage, and let them do all the stomping they want. Just as I can be surprised about Beem’s tender side.

  • jack bauer

    After reading this column (and being pleasantly surprised at its positive tone), I could not help thinking that Beem must hold a pro-life position.

    • EABeem

      Nope. Everyone draws the line in a different place, some at contraception, some at conception, some at viability, some at birth, etc. I support a woman’s right to determine whether she gives birth. I would hope they could make that decision in the first trimester. They can as long as abortion is legal and society does not condemn a woman for becoming pregnant accidently.

      • jack bauer

        Such a pity. Considering the numerous ways a pregnancy can simply be avoided in the first place, or that a newborn baby can be put up for adoption…that Mr. Beem would support anybody’s “right” to commit murder is perplexing. Nearly one million little lives snuffed-out each year in this country is mass murder on a scale that even Hitler would blush. What a terrible shame.

        • EABeem

          And I suppose you are a pacifist and opposed to the death penalty as well. “Murder” does not help the pro-life cause.

          • jack bauer

            There once was a time, not long ago, when it was acceptable and legal to own a human being. Those who objected to that immoral practice were ridiculed and vilified by the pundits of the day. It took decades to change society, a country was torn apart and hundreds of thousands of lives were sacrificed but the cause of abolishing slavery was finally won.
            Today, pundits ridicule those who would stand-up for the most innocent among us. Pundits attempt character assassination, try to deflect the subject, scream “it’s legal!” and otherwise justify the deliberate destruction of innocent human life.
            There will come a time when people look back and wonder just how a culture could justify a practice that treats its own species like it was detritus.

          • EABeem

            So are you opposed to the death penalty and to war, or not?

          • jack bauer

            Your attempts to draw me into a straw man argument will not be successful.

          • EABeem

            You argue from the fact that I love babies that I must therefore be pro-life. So I am just making a similar point, if you are pro-life you must be opposed to war and the death penalty. I view anyone who is pro-life but also pro-death penalty as a sanctimonious hypocrite and we wouldn’t want that.

          • jack bauer

            You are obviously pro-abortion which this reader finds curious based upon your column.
            But as I stated before, your attempts to bait me into a straw man argument will not be successful no matter how many veiled insults you hurl or vitriolic you become.

          • EABeem

            Why, I responded to your straw fetus.

  • County Boy

    As a Portland native who has actually spent most of his life in Aroostook County, I must say that the only thing I miss, besides my wife, when I leave South Portland in late winter to tap some Linneus maple trees, is Edgar Allen Beem’s Universal Notebook. While I don’t care that you have a soft side, though it is nice to know, what I do care about is your incisive wit, your command of the language, your dislike for all things LePage (do you remember when that was school glue?), your concern for the poor, both the really down and out and the working varieties, your belief that it is detrimental to America to have guns so freely available (would that they were all single-shot muskets and pistols as they were when the 2nd Amendment passed), and your wish to reduce the disparity in income levels. My wife sends me your clippings sometimes. The abortion issue is harder. While I agree that women should have the right to decide whether or not to have an abortion, it doesn’t feel 100% right. However, having worked with unwanted, uncared for, abused, violated, neglected and eventually drug addicted children, I believe many of them have, from time to time, wished they were dead. I still believe that abortion is more humane than suicide, or worse, a long painful life in a state that increasingly stigmatizes those who cannot figure out how to cope with the predispositions they received at birth, the precipitating harmful events of their childhood, and the perpetuating neglect and abuse by the state system set up originally to help them become functioning, contributing citizens.

  • Queenie42

    Please let us know how Rudy is doing. I’ve been thinking of him all week and even said a prayer to St. Francis.

    • EABeem

      Thanks.They just took a little section out of his eyelid and it healed up nicely. And to be perfectly honest, the cone bothered him more than his eye did, so I took it off him after about six or eight hours, once I had determined that he would not scratch at the eye. He’s dozing on the sofa in my office at the moment, one eye open in case I decide to go out without him.