Hitting a Nerve

Incommunicado no more


A few weeks ago I wrote about my glasses and the discovery that they’d been made incorrectly. The headline for the story was “The Way I See It.”

That’s the opening line from Joni Mitchell’s 1974 song “Free Man in Paris.” But I grew up in a Neil Diamond household (Dad always had Neil Diamond on when he was working at home) so the first time I heard the song was in 1977, when Diamond covered it. In fact, I didn’t even realize it was originally Mitchell’s song until I was in my 50s.

It’s about a world that doesn’t exist anymore.

Dr. Allan M. Block, a neurologist in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Dr. Allan M. Block

The song is about music promoter David Geffen and a trip he took to Paris. Back in southern California, he was always working. There were continual phone calls, deals, meetings, and people looking for favors.

But on his trip to Paris in the early 1970s, he became just another person. No one could find him to ask for help or cut a deal. He couldn’t be reached. He felt “unfettered and alive” and could go from “cafe to cabaret,” relax, and enjoy himself.

Medical practice was once that way. You’d check-out patients to your call partners, leave town, and relax for a week or two.

Try doing that today.

For better or worse, all of us now are attached to our phones. We even have a new psychiatric condition – nomophobia – for the fear of not having our mobile phone handy. Every time I leave my house or office I repeat a simple mantra “phone, wallet, keys” as I pat my pockets.

Unless you can part with your gadget – which ain’t easy – no one is a “free man in Paris” (or Tokyo, or Rio, or Beijing) anymore. Even ships have cell service at sea. There are still places on Earth remote enough that you can’t be reached, but they get fewer and smaller every year.

When was the last time you really went somewhere and had no communication with your office at all? Emails, texts, anything? Unless you’re in a shift-work branch of medicine, like ER or hospitalist, I’m going to guess it’s been a while. And even in those branches you probably get emails about administrative matters, scheduling questions, and pointless memos.

Being in solo practice I’ve come to accept this, but it’s a conscious decision on my part. It’s easier than finding a call partner, and if I’m handling my own stuff at least I’m not going to come home to any surprises. So I’ve covered patients from as far west as Hawaii, north as Juneau, south as Panama City, and east as Le Havre.

Granted, this is medicine, and many other jobs don’t require the degree of involvement that it does. But I suspect pretty much any professional - attorney, accountant, executive - still has to deal with work-related stuff while traveling. Back in the 1970s to 1980s my dad, a solo-practice lawyer, had a set time each vacation weekday afternoon where he’d call his secretary to go over stuff. Today it would be by email or texts.

We’ve done this to ourselves. We’ve accepted the trade-off of better connectivity with family and friends for expanding our time at work. The same technology that lets me send in prescription refills from London also lets me send family pictures back from Maui. It’s not easy to draw a solid line between them, and I’m not so sure many of us want to.

Today, 50 years after Ms. Mitchell wrote the song, the idea of being a “free man in Paris” – or anywhere – really doesn’t exist for most of us anymore. You can argue whether that’s good or bad, but it’s where we are.

Dr. Block has a solo neurology practice in Scottsdale, Ariz.

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