Tuesday, February 8, 2011


Many years ago, back in Paris, one of my former employers told his assembled staff: "The challenge of becoming rich involves two aspects. On the one hand, you have to earn as much money as possible. On the other hand, you must spend as little as possible."

I've often thought that our health situation is similar. On the one hand, you must have access to top-quality medical services… including, above all, an excellent GP (general practitioner). On the other hand, you have to avoid running into health problems. Elementary, my dear Watson. (Apparently Sherlock Holmes never pronounced this apocryphal phrase in any of the sixty detective novels written by Arthur Conan Doyle.) I consider myself fortunate in the sense that, in my personal case, both these conditions appear to prevail.

I drop in at the GP's rooms in Pont-en-Royans once every three months for a renewal of the prescription for three or four pills that I've been taking over the last six years. The ritual is always the same. The GP tries to imagine what kind of medical tests he might be able to impose upon me, through his specialist colleagues in the nearby cities of Valence and Romans. Since my prostate has been removed, and since I perform regular checks for colon cancer, I've become a relatively dull candidate for tests… but I'm sure my GP will think of something one of these days.

A long time ago, he informed me that my cervical vertebra resembled worn-out parts in an aging automobile, and that this could well bring about fits of vestibular giddiness. Back at the time the GP said that, I didn't really believe his diagnosis. On the one hand, I never have a stiff or painful neck (in spite of sitting upright in front of a computer screen for hours on end, seated on a hard wooden chair). On the other hand, if I felt giddy at times, particularly when I looked skywards, I imagined this as the first symptoms of some terrible form of cerebral decay. Maybe I had inherited it from my ancestor Charles Walker, innkeeper on the Braidwood goldfields, who used to drink too much of a beverage invented by a Scotsman named Johnnie Walker who, I believe, was his brother. If Charles had died in 1860 of delirium tremens, and if his great-great-grandson felt giddy from time to time when he was wandering around on the slopes with his dogs at Choranche, it's clear that this had nothing to do with neck bones; it was the inherited fault of bad neurons.

Reluctantly, however, I was obliged to admit to my GP that, one morning a month or so ago, I woke up with both a sore neck and a bit of giddiness. Later on in the morning, just to see whether or not it might work, I performed energetic exercises with my arms, neck and shoulders. By midday, both the pain in the neck and the giddiness had totally disappeared. So, that certainly proved something… and my GP agreed! I did have the impression, however, that he looked at me with a puzzled expression when I was telling him this story, as if I might indeed have decaying whisky-soaked neurons in my inner brain.

The GP's test for blood pressure always follows a similar ritual. Lying on my back, I tend to forget that he's busy trying to determine my blood pressure, and I carry on talking, in anything but a relaxed state. He frowns because his reading is lower than expected. At that stage, he always asks me the same question: "Do you check your blood pressure regularly at home?" And I always tell him that I wouldn't have the faintest idea about how to perform such an operation. By that time, I'm standing up, and my body is no longer tense. And, in this position, the GP's new reading of my blood pressure reverts to its normal value, which seems to please him greatly.

After that incident, the GP sets his computer in action, so that it prints out a new copy of my regular prescription. He functions in multi-processing mode by simultaneously recording my payment, signing my prescription and talking on the phone with his wife. Besides, this red-blooded lady's man seems to be amused when I say that this kind of aptitude is generally strictly feminine.

At that point in my visit to the GP, the serious part of our encounter can get under way. I'm talking of our regular conversations about books, science, the Internet, etc. The other day, the GP set the ball rolling.

GP: "I bought the two Dawkins books you mentioned, and found them highly interesting."

Knowing nothing of the quality of French translations of books by Richard Dawkins, I had nevertheless recommended that he might read The God Delusion and The Greatest Show on Earth. Parts of the first book, on atheism, had apparently impressed my GP greatly. In particular, he liked the explanations about the plasticity of the minds of tender children, who can be made to believe anything they're told. Meanwhile, the overall American situation was news to him.

GP: "I was amazed to learn that declaring oneself an atheist in the USA prevents you from being considered as a decent citizen, capable of becoming an elected politician."

William: "At least it's not like that in France."

GP: "It's the opposite here. Politicians like to make themselves out to be free-thinking Republicans, liberated with respect to religious bias. But, as soon as one of their leaders dies, they all flock along to the cathedral of Notre-Dame to pray for the soul of their dead companion."

Talking of believers and non-believers, an interesting Harris poll has just been conducted here in France, where we imagine that the faithful continue to flock to Sunday Mass, albeit in dwindling numbers.

Roughly a third of the population say they're believers, and a third, atheists. The remaining third is characterized by the fact that they simply don't know whether or not God exists. Among them, most people feel that this question is interesting, whereas others say it's not. Those results are unsurprising. What amused me greatly, on the other hand, is the fact that a third of the religious folk who said they were Catholics went on to reveal that they nevertheless don't really believe in the existence of God. Now, I like that approach! That's the kind of Catholic I myself might be, if I set my mind to it. Besides God, the Devil and the Holy Ghost, though, I would also refuse to believe in popes, saints, miracles, priests and all the rest of the ugly rubbish, including relics.

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