Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Personal Asides: The Peace from Being Hard of Hearing…MacTavish J. Puppy.


Joy of Silence.

Shortly after I retired from Quaker Oats, I began having trouble hearing the dialogue on television crime shows. My wife would say, “will you stop turning that set up? The volume gives me a headache!” Then I would ask “what? what?” to colleagues talking to me in noisy restaurants. The women in my family pestered me to get a hearing aid. I said no, I’ll make it. Then I started having trouble hearing women’s voices on the phone. So I got a hearing aid—then I got two, one for each ear.

Let me tell you, hearing aids are imperfect mechanisms. Costing $1,500 apiece they are temperamental and vitriolic. If you have an abundance of ear wax as I have, it gets in the receivers and clogs them. You have to go to a doctor to have the stuff yanked out of your ears every few months. The receivers themselves go out of whack and have to be sent to the factory in Camden, New Jersey. With luck only one receiver will go out at a time, allowing you to have the use of the other. I don’t know what I’d do if both conked out at the same time—but it’s improbable, I’m told: rather like having two automobile tires suffer blowouts at the same time. Right now I’m down to one hearing aid. I went to get the wax taken out of my ears—particularly the right one—and the doctor noticed an infection…so my wife has to mix up a concoction of alcohol and vinegar which she squirts in both ears with a syringe three times a day.

But with all trials, there is recompense. Because I tune out of most conversations that are conducted in restaurants, I concentrate on the work I have to do when I return home. I cannot tell you the unutterable joy I have had not being able to hear sermons at Mass every morning. Instead, I meditate. Catholic priests are notorious for being the worst homilists in the world; unlike evangelical Protestants, they regard the sermon as one of the least important events of the Mass…and, of course, they are right as the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ is. It is a wonderful time for me to reflect as I watch the homilist’s lips move and imagine what he is saying. I am vain enough to suppose that what I imagine his saying…or what I would say at that occasion based on the gospel and epistle…is superior to what he is actually saying. There is a particular Jesuit at a church I go to on Saturday morning who is particularly effusive and who barges into the liturgy with impromptu little homilies. I imagine he is that way because nobody listens to him in that rectory full of priests. Poor guy. But a few years ago when I had better hearing, I made it a point to strain to listen and discovered he was talking about an article I had written for the “Sun-Times” about the song-writer Johnny Mercer. Then my hearing tuned out and I never did understand what Johnny Mercer…as good a lyricist as he was…had to do with the gospel or epistle of the day.

There’s one thing every deafy learns at the outset which is not to fake it. It’s better to smile beatifically and nod rather than to volunteer an answer to a question which you haven’t heard. Charles Percy who was a man of some inordinate pride, found that he had to buy a hearing aid. For Percy that was an anomaly since he was also a Christian Scientist. There’s something there that makes you distrust a Christian Scientist who uses a hearing aid—but Percy decided to get one anyhow. Being Percy…a former CEO…he went to John Nevin, the CEO of Zenith and had him fit him with the aid. It was a small one, flesh-toned that fit in the inner recess of the ear. Percy decided he could wing it.

One day at a Washington reception, a lady came up to Percy…said something to him which he didn’t hear…and peered in his ear. Then she said in exclamation…and the crowd overheard her…Aha, Senator Percy, I see you are hard of hearing!

Percy reddened and to the astonishment of his staff which was standing around, said: “No, I am not hard of hearing. It’s a special device that has been constructed to allow me to concentrate specifically on the debate in the Senate with particular focus.”

The crowd standing around didn’t know whether to buy that explanation or not—and was on the way to accepting it as a new-fangled aid for the Senate, when the lady…who was impressed…said, “Really? Senator, what kind is it?”

Percy looked at his watch and said brightly, “It’s a quarter to four!”

The crowd around him quickly drifted off.

That’s why you should never fake being hard of hearing. There are great compensations. My wife will look at me and give an order. I will answer truthfully: what, my dear? She will throw her hands up in desperation, turn on her heel and do what she wanted me to. And the silence, once you adjust to it, is wonderful. It leads me to think that our lives are all too filled with sound and fury signifying very little. Because I have spent a lifetime listening to a good many non-essential things, improper jokes, extravagant boasts, angry imprecations, scandalous gossip, God has rewarded me with time off for silence—and meditation…for which I am very grateful to Him.

MacTavish J. Puppy.

When I retired fifteen years ago, I feared I would have a lot of time on my hands…which didn’t prove out…so for my birthday I asked for a puppy. My wife who is not fond of dogs, gave me one. We went to the home of a lady who was raising puppies…in fact so many puppies were in her house that she was taken away by some guardians who had properly decided that she needed counseling and help. She would not let us go beyond her parlor. Believe it or not when the cops came to haul her in, they found 105 dogs in her house.

She trotted out a number of bishon friezes for us to consider. They are all small, weighing fifteen pounds, with curly white hair and black, darting little eyes. One ran right over to me, pleaded to be picked up and covered my face with kisses…while his sister stayed aloof. You know the one I picked. He cost $500. We brought him home. The first night he was terribly frightened and, not being housebroken, stayed on our sun-porch where I decided to keep him company on the couch. It was a terrible night while the little fellow wailed for his other family. But soon he adjusted. Bichons are the best puppies in the world for kids. He allows our 13 grandchildren to play with him, pull his tail, poke in his ears. I like to think I am his favorite—but I know I am not. His favorite and the woman he loves is Lillian who claims she does not love him back. When she takes a shower, he is parked by her bathroom door, black nose on his paws, waiting. He has a particular game with me. When I come home from Mass each morning he expects a treat…a doggy treat called “Milk Bone.” But by the rules of our game, he must call for it with a bark. He starts off tentatively hoping that I will notice his hunger. I do not. He whines. I still do not. Then he barks which prompts a reward.

His name is Mac, short for MacTavish but he has a surname: very unoriginal—Puppy. He is MacTavish J. Puppy. Now he is fifteen years old which means that fate is waiting to claim MacTavish J. Puppy. I approach this with some mixed feelings. We don’t travel anymore because of MacTavish J. Puppy. He will not adjust to a kennel and won’t understand…thinking he is abandoned, and that would pain me to believe that MacTavish J. Puppy would believe for a second that I would abandon him. We used to take him to Milwaukee when we visit our daughter and her family there—but MacTavish J. Puppy…an old grandfather dog…is discomfited by Sammy their dog who is bursting with the joy of youth. MacTavish doesn’t like this young upstart whose nose is always stuck in improper places and upsets the dignity of MacTavish J. Puppy.

So after a short time visiting, MacTavish J. Puppy announces that it is time to go home. He does so by issuing a series of barks meaning that he wants to be put in his leash and escorted to his car for the ride home. We thought we could handle this by engaging to stay at a nearby motel which accepts dogs…but no sooner do we go to bed there than MacTavish J. Puppy gets restive. A true conservative, he wants to go home. He has a way of making our nights miserable by wanting to go home. So we have adjusted our lives to accommodate that of MacTavish J. Puppy. We leave Milwaukee at a respectable hour and drive home with MacTavish J. Puppy sleeping soundly on the back seat.

MacTavish J. Puppy has, like all of us senior citizens, arthritis. His paws and legs are very stiff. On advice of two friends, we took him to a holistic veterinarian…a flouncy woman who ordered us to call her only at certain times—between the hours of 10 and 2 on odd days…between 9 and 1 on even days…never in the evening. She gave MacTavish J. Puppy acupuncture—the first of many future treatments which will cost conservatively $1,000. It’s worth it for MacTavish J. Puppy.

Fifteen years in the life of a bichon is equivalent to 76 in human terms—so says the chart at the Vet’s. The other night we came home from a banquet…Catholic Citizens held at Drury Lane…and I, entering the house first, was greeted by MacTavish J. Puppy. Then I went down to the basement to compose some material or other on the word processor…only to be called upstairs by my wife with a voice escalated sharply enough for me to hear it.

MacTavish J. Puppy was in anguish. He had been lying down and could not get up. When he attempted to rise, he would fall over…and his left side seemed to be paralyzed. We knew what that meant: a stroke. Our fellow senior citizen was experiencing what we might very well face. He was horrified, frightened, panting with extreme excitement, his little black eyes darting…not know what had happened to him. I picked him up and hugged him close. His little puppy heart was flailing wildly.

It was too late to call the Vet so Lillian…the one who has maintained that she has had sufficient fill of MacTavish J. Puppy…sent me to bed and sat up the entire night in the guest room, on a cot with MacTavish J. Puppy as he finally snoozed fitfully. I told her the next morning that this is proof she loves him. She said adamantly she does not—that she does not like to see anything suffer. I accepted her word to end the argument but I do not believe her.

The next morning we took MacTavish J. Puppy to the vet…not just a vet but what I firmly believe is the Mayo Clinic for puppies. He examined him and said he could not deduce whether he had a stroke or an inner-ear problem. He looked at me manfully and said, “You know he’s a very old dog. There are only so many things we can do with him at this age.” I had decided I would not agree to euthanasia—only as a last resort and MacTavish J. Puppy was on the examining table, his legs not steadying him, I holding him. So the vet game us some cortisone and a lot of instructions.

Slowly but surely, MacTavish J. Puppy has come around.

The other morning when we came from Mass, he struggled heroically to hobble to the kitchen, his left side inoperative and let out a small, plaintive growl for his treat. That was the beginning. Things got better since then. The other night we were out at a St. John’s University reunion where I am sure I was the oldest alum there—having graduated 54 years earlier—and John Rielly who was Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s foreign policy adviser, who has retired as president of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations and his wife joined us for a toast of wine to the school. His wife told us that she was a dog lover and described the condition of her dog which perfectly coincided with that of MacTavish J. Puppy!

I am delighted to report that this morning after Mass MacTavish J. Puppy was ready for the folderol that surrounds his being rewarded with treats. It was a treat indeed for me to see him so peppery, although favoring his left side. I suppose time is still closing in for MacTavish J. Puppy but I have taken to reading…for comfort…the eminent philosopher and theologian Peter Kreeft of Boston University. Kreeft has postulated the idea that pets go to heaven, which is a slight heresy from other Catholic dogma but which has been regarded as an open question by those tiresome theologians who believe pets do not. It is a comfort indeed to consider that while I am not at all sure…due to my litany of crimson sins…that I will be enjoying the Beatific Vision unless given a treat and a pass by the benevolent hand of God…there is no question about the future of MacTavish J. Puppy who cannot sin.

Just think: he cannot sin. Fortified with that certainty, I pick up MacTavish J. Puppy and kiss him squarely on his doggy mouth…which I admit I regularly do to my wife’s disgust—saying, “now you kiss me!” She will go to heaven…I will use all my lobbyist’s skills and advocacy to try to get in…but ahead of us, barking expectantly will be MacTavish J. Puppy! It is one of the things that make his future death bearable for me.

And if you are one of those Thomistic theologians who believe there is no Hereafter for MacTavish J. Puppy, you can just jolly well go to another web-site.


  1. I'm inclined to think St. Francis of Assisi would agree with you and Prof. Kreeft about pets and Heaven. Incidentally, C.S. Lewis had a more complicated theory that is also fundamentally in agreement with you.

    I must, however, side with Lillian on the question of canine osculation. It has been my observation that dogs tend to use their tongues for a certain hygenic practice for which humans in Arab cultures use their left hands.

    I will at least grant that even this aspect would not make the practice quite as unhygenic as the "kiss-in" at DePaul, if that is any consolation.

  2. A name like McTavish surely must have a story behind it; curiously, you either declined or neglected to share that part of the story.

    I once heard Pat Buchanan describe his cat. (Who would have guessed him to be a cat person?) After he got the cat neutered and de-clawed, his family decided to name it George Will.

  3. Now there are TWO dog-pieces which will remain with me--yours and Ben Stein's (on the death of his dog--about 10 years ago in the Spectator.)

  4. Tom- I am normally four square with you, but not on pups in heaven. First, Lil loved your piece (as I did), and she agrees with you.
    Now, let's consider expansion of your sentimental journey. Does a dog breeder get to take all his pups? How about a horse owner? How about a alligator farmer, or better yet a pig farmer (remember the sweet little Nam porkies)? You are now getting into Mormon territory, where every saint will be a god on his own planet, etc.
    "Eyes have never seen, and ears have never heard---" what awaits us.
    What if pet makes it, and owner doesn't pass muster? Cheers, your friend Nof

  5. One does become attached to an animal. I had a cousin who hated dogs. Her husband came home with one "for the kids." She, like Lillian, did not like dogs but she did get attached to the dog. When it finally died, she really took it hard.

  6. I loved your article about Mac. I passed copies onto my wife and younger son. We have a 9-year-old Bichon named Daniel M.J. Becker, the initials standing for the double middle names he shares with his two human brothers. Danny also has developed a dislike for boarding as he gets older. He's really my younger son's dog, but my wife and I have grown close to him since the boys went off to college. Thank you again for the article!