Thursday, January 4, 2007

Best wishes for eternal health

While I was in Australia a few months ago, my aunt Nancy happened to tell some lady friends that she had a visitor, her nephew (me), who lived on an old farm in south-eastern France. Immediately, the friends asked: “What’s he farming?” Nancy replied naively: “William has four or five sheep.” And everybody burst out laughing. In everyday Down Under thinking, people who live on farms are necessarily serious farmers, and they have huge herds. Consequently, Nancy's nice suburban friends could not possibly imagine spontaneously the case of somebody like me, who has never been a professional farmer, living in an exotic antipodean mountainous setting on an Old-World farm with a few beasts to keep him company and, above all, to eat the weeds.

At Gamone, my sheep-farming activities came to a symbolic end over a year ago when my herd of a dozen animals happened to be terrified by a glorious dog named Gamone [whose name derives from the fact that this splendid animal was born here: Sophia's daughter, seen in my arms in this photo], who then chased the sheep along the road to my neighbor’s place at Sirouza. Since then, the sheep situation at Gamone has never been quite the same. I exerted a lot of energy in attempting to dislodge my superb Merino ram named Oz from the precarious position into which he had fallen, under a bridge over the Bourne. To do this, I had to place a rope around the animal's neck and topple him down into the swiftly-running river, then paddle/swim alongside him over a distance of twenty or so meters, and finally drag him up onto dry land. A few days later, back at Gamone, the ram died from festering wounds received when he fell. Meanwhile, I tried to coax the remaining members of the flock down from my neighbor’s mountain, which meant my groping around dangerously on a sloping surface of moving pebbles where the sheep had decided to settle.

A day or so after all this excitement, I suffered a mild cerebral attack, for reasons that are fairly easy to imagine. Mechanics would say that I had blown a valve. Now, this is a pretext for publishing an image to which I’m very attached: my skull. I would have liked to show this photo a few days ago, when I was evoking Hamlet and company, but that would have been a bit pretentious. Today, I’m hoping that I can show you my brain in total modesty.

You might be wondering why I’m bringing up all this trivial old stuff...

Well, after being examined by all kinds of brilliant French medical specialists, and sitting (well, lying) for that delightful portrait of my skull [all of which was carried out more-or-less free of charge, because the French Republic has a great public health system], I was invited to take part in a big medical experiment conducted by a government body called Inserm: Institut national de la santé et de la recherche médicale [National Institute for Health and Medical Research]. My job as a guinea pig consists essentially of consuming, every morning, a first capsule that might be composed of folate vitamins and a second capsule that might be composed of omega-3 stuff. The word “might” indicates, as all guinea pigs know, that we can’t be sure of what our medical masters are feeding us. For all I know, I might have drawn a placebo card, which would mean that I’m consuming every morning, not vitamins and fish, but inert flour. And this daily diet will go on theoretically for the next five years, unless I happen to die before then of a cerebral accident or some such thing. So, it's like a kind of carefree lottery in which the tickets are free, and there are no obvious prizes. Maybe, one day, an Inserm scientist will say to me: "William, you're a nice cooperative guy, and you seem to be in great health, but I'm obliged to reveal that we've been feeding you flour for the last five years." Or maybe, rather: "William, your case disturbs us, because you should normally be dead." Conclusion: We guinea pigs don't really know what's in store for us, but we can't complain, because there's nothing to complain about.

Voilà the circumstances [those who don’t know what the word voilà means might consult a French doctor, or maybe use Google] in which I've just received a friendly New Year’s message from Inserm, which I can’t refrain from publishing here in my blog, because it’s simply so nice and medically charming. It's in French, of course (since it emanates from an official government department), and you might not therefore understand its subtleties. But I can assure you that these best New Year wishes to guinea pigs are nice and colorful and surely sincere, but really nice and colorful above all:

Conclusion: Either they're behaving deceitfully, or they're scientifically dim-witted! The Inserm guys and gals know perfectly well that their famous experiment won’t have any sense whatsoever if all of us guinea pigs remain eternally in perfect health, as they wish us falsely from the corner of their mouth [as they say in French]. If these Inserm folk are good scientists [as they surely are], the first thing they hope [if their huge experiment is to achieve anything at all] is that some of us guinea pigs [in particular, those that are eating flour] are going to die miserably in the scientific gutter as soon as possible. So, the public-relations specialists of Inserm should not really be sending us global wishes of eternal health... which would be equivalent to stating that their experiment is doomed to failure.

Naturally, I would like to send my best New Year wishes for longevity to all the wonderful Inserm folk. If any of these researchers happened to be knocked down by a bus or a lightning strike, the whole future of French medical research could be thrown into jeopardy. So, it's me who should be wishing them a long life, not the inverse.

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