This website is now 28 years old –22 years as a traditional blog. Long time readers (both of you) will know that I traditionally reserve the first post of a new year for some sappy, shmaltzy reflections. So if you’re here for science or bad jokes, this is not the post for you. Tune in next time.
For the whole world, 2020 was a stressful time. It was worse for some than for others. For many, it was brazenly horrific. And for a handful, it was actually a fairly pleasant year. (We call those people “billionaires.”)
Here is 2020 summarized in one video:
Last year at this time, I attended a black tie affair at a friend’s house, very much in a thoughtful and celebratory mood, as I had a secret that I had not shared beyond my immediate family: that that would be the last New Year’s I would spend as a childless man. I was deep in my own world, self-obsessed and thinking only about how my life would soon change permanently.
This was a small news story on the day:
Many did not take note of this bit of news. I did, mostly because some of my students had forwarded it to me. But honestly, I did not think much of it. I had other, (to my mind bigger) and more personal things to ponder.
I don’t need to go over what you all know. The COVID-19 pandemic scorched the Earth. As of today, there have been over 80 million cases and almost 2 million confirmed deaths. And the next couple of months are going to be among the worst of the pandemic, I’m sorry to say.
On a personal note, I lost some loved ones. Some distant family friends fell to COVID. Some elderly relatives were taken from us, as well, of other causes, as is the unfortunate nature of the cycle of life. But one loss was particularly cruel and unfair and seemingly timed by the gods for maximal distress. For the sake of privacy and respect for his family, I will not dwell here on that somber moment, as that loss makes 2020 a stain of a year for my extended family.
But 2020 also gave me the finest gift, that of my son. When we learned of his zygotic existence, I immediately started to look forward to this very moment, when I would be able to reflect on the first months of his life in this public space. But I did not anticipate the chaos and distress that would also come in subsequent months. It’s hard to talk about the joys of new fatherhood without also dwelling on the horrors of pandemic.
This New Year’s was spent with extended family…. over a Zoom call, of course! And you know what? It was pretty comfortable. No need to dress up. No need to drive anywhere. I could drink my cognac (dropped off my by cousin, who kept a COVID-safe distance from the door) to excess then climb the stairs and go to bed. I suspect many families will be maintaining the video party tradition well past the pandemic’s expiration date.
My first thoughts of 2021, though, were of my first novel –not because I’m an insufferable narcissist (though that’s surely part of it), but because the themes I wrote about then still drive my motivations today. I wrote it 18 years ago; and until now I had thought that that book would be the hardest and best thing I would have accomplished for the entirety of my adult life.
Of course, fatherhood trumps any book, and my life is going to get harder, more stressful, and also more rewarding with every passing day.
That particular book was inspired by Alfred Lord Tennyson’s verse, “The Lady of Shalott“, which plays an important role in the long opening chapter. You see, back then I was both better educated and far more pretentious than I am now. (These days, my intellectual high point is being able to name all the Marvel movies in release order.)
It got me thinking about other things said and written by Tennyson, Queen Victoria’s poet laureate. In particular, a line from “The Foresters“, his play about Robin Hood and Maid Marian, stands out:
“Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering. ‘It will be happier.'”
It’s been such a weird year for me. I became something of a public figure, having been on the news many times. That’s not as much fun as you might think. It’s come with hate mail, nasty (often racist) comments on public forums, and one time someone suggested that I be assaulted… for offering my opinion on scientific matters. Remember: no one is compelled to take my opinions to heart. Everyone is free to ignore me.
As a result, getting recognized on the street while walking the dog has usually resulted in some nervousness. Is this person saying hello, just surprised that they recognize me, or are they about to assault me? I stopped telling my spouse about such recognition events, as they heightened her anxiety, as well.
I will say that 100% of the time, those who approach me in public have been supportive and friendly people. In fact, while I have received some nasty correspondence, that caustic noise been drowned out by many scores of congratulatory messages. It’s filled me with a renewed confidence that we genuinely do live in a community seeking the betterment of each other’s positions, that maybe my son has indeed been born into a good world.
Since this post is all about navel-gazing, I’d like to take a moment to explain how all of this media exposure came about. It was the early days of the yet undeclared pandemic, my unborn son was growing large in his uterine home, and I was about to begin my parental leave. Parts of society had begun to close down as the first wave was upon us. But COVID had not yet been named, and was not yet the sole topic on all news broadcasts. And I had not been paying attention to the epidemiology, being fully focused on my impending fatherhood.
But one night, I decided to do the math. Epidemic disease modelling is not my forte, but I can get by in broad strokes. My spouse found me curled up in the fetal position some hours later. I slinked about depressed for a couple of days thereafter. It’s important to know that I am a preternaturally happy person; it takes a lot to get be down, so my spouse was naturally concerned.
You see, I had come to understand what other epidemiologists had already realized weeks earlier. I now understood that this was to be a months-long, perhaps years-long ordeal; that humanity was starting a new thing, a true global pandemic that might require us to hide in our houses for a very very long time. The world had just changed for the much worse. And I could see no obvious way out of it.
Obviously, this was distressing. My parents are quite elderly and live in a different city. I was convinced that they would succumb to this disease without ever having a chance to meet or hold their new grandchild. This I felt was the first of many cruelties that Fate had reserved for me, in overdue penance for my free-and-easy life of unearned good fortune.
Overhearing friends, family, and even media figures quip casually about, “in a few weeks when this is all over…” filled me with dread. The world did not know. The world did not understand.
Now, I am not a great scientist. I know I’m a mediocre researcher. This isn’t false modesty. My strengths as an academic are in communication, teaching, and in understanding the big picture. I don’t have the patience or singular focus for deep analysis or discovery. So I would be less than useless on the front lines of this thing.
But I knew I had to do something –anything– to contribute to getting society out of this muck. How could I ever face my son years from now and tell him that his father, an actual Epidemiologist collecting his fat salary from a public institution, didn’t do all he could to make this scourge go away?
So I chose to write. That’s what I think I do best. On March 20, my blog post, “What’s the End Game?” went viral. That’s when I realized that the overwhelming majority of people really know nothing about population health. There was a gaping hole in public education that needed filling fast.
I am fond of recounting the positives of this dire year. One of them, for me, was my rediscovery of a critical role. Public science literacy must be a societal priority in coming years. And I know I can contribute on that front. It’s a good feeling to finally and deeply understand one’s role in the world, at least for the nonce.
So I have spent this year on parental leave, learning to care for my baby, but also writing and talking. There is an opportunity here for a renaissance in science, at least in the public eye. And frankly, it’s a necessary thing if we are to survive both the current crisis and the next one.
But what of the trajectory of this disease, and of the evolution of my thoughts on the matter? I re-read with curiosity these words that I wrote ten months ago:
While modern biotechnology can sequence a virus’s DNA and crank out vaccine candidates in a matter of days, it realistically takes 1-2 years to refine, test, mass produce and distribute that vaccine. Maybe with an unprecedented global effort, we can get that down to just under a year, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Several candidates are already being trialed. So maybe with a Manhattan Project level of commitment, we can get that time frame down to under a year.
This morning, my cousin who is a nurse in a geriatric centre in Toronto got her first dose of the Pfizer COVID vaccine. My spouse, a family doctor, might be able to get her shot within the month. Some of my former students, now doctors and nurses, are themselves posting updates of vaccination clinics from around the country. If all goes as planned, my octogenarian parents might get inoculated in a couple of months.
I literally want to weep. I flash back to those dark hours lying in the fetal position 10 months ago, acutely aware of the horror that the world was about to endure, a horror that the vast majority had yet to be informed about, and I can barely believe that all that stands in the way of herd immunity is the speed with which we can manufacture and distribute an existing vaccine.
I tremble with the majesty of it. Hope whispers, “it will be happier.”
Okay, enough rambling. Every year I list the things I am thankful for. They don’t really change much. But they’re still worth listing. So here they are. In no particular order, I am thankful for these things in the world and in my life:
(1) A certain young woman who can have any man (or woman) she wants, but who chooses to share her life with this rickety weirdo. I don’t know what I did in my previous lives to deserve the incredible good fortune I have to be loved the way that I am, by someone whom it gives me otherwordly joy to refer to as, “the mother of my child.”
(2) A certain quadrupedal canine who is annoying as fuck, and who is snoring behind me as I write this. He prevents me from going to some places. He prevents visitors from coming to me. He hinders my ability to care for my child. He terrorizes the neighbourhood varmints and poor delivery folk. He only weights 20 pounds but occupies 90% of the bed. Judging by smell alone, you could not tell his mouth from his anus. He’s a huge pain in my ass. But I love the little fucker so much that it hurts. And if you even look at him in a disrespectful way, I will be compelled to do very bad things to you.
(3) What a lucky man I am, to be in his 50s and yet have both parents alive and independent. With every year that passes, they become noticeably more frail and frustratingly less present. Let me be blunt: I know my time with them is diminishing. I am so unspeakably thankful that I got to be a father while I still have a mother and father of my own. That little connection to the trunk of humanity, reaching back into the mists of time, is a comforting sensation. I feel tethered to the species, held taught at both ends of the endless chain, my son at one side and my parents at the other. Oh what a lucky man I am.
(4) I have two brothers and two sisters. As we age and produce more family, the foundational web of trust and reliance woven over decades of intimate knowledge becomes evermore vital. What will carry me the rest of the way? Why, it must be this solid yet soft base of support, made solid with the adhesive of love. I am pleased my son has these aunts and uncles.
(5) Colleagues— more than I knew. A strange thing has happened during my weird year of public commentary. I have found support amongst fellow scientists and academics, and indeed citizens from all walks of life, by virtue of social media. There are scientists on Twitter whom I’ve never met, but who I feel are my beloved teammates in a global struggle against an inhuman foe. The same goes for other strangers I’ve met online, who share their stories and fears, and who offer their emotional support when I need it. You see, I’m very much an extrovert. “Lockdown” has been hard for me; but meeting so many new people virtually has been a revelation. And of course, my actual colleagues at the University of Ottawa have shown their true faces, and what lovely faces they are.
The COVID crisis has been an opportunity to retreat to our worse impulses or to rise to our highest heights. Everyone in my life, especially my professional life, has taken the latter path. They’ve shown themselves to be good.
(6) The magic of science (yes, an intentional oxymoron) showed its worth this year. Where people failed, where leaders failed, where planners failed…. scientists soared. Multiple COVID vaccines now criss-cross the Earth. Microbiologists, virologists, and immunologists toiled for months on end to pull humanity’s collective asses out of the fire of pandemic. Let’s take a moment to raise a glass to science.
(7) And of course I am most thankful for the miracle of my son. Yes, I waited late in life to become a father. Frankly, I’d become used to the idea that it would probably never happen for me. I was walking to see a colleague for an early morning breakfast meeting on campus when my spouse texted me the news that we were expecting. I was in a daze all day and did not know who I could or should tell.
You know what? I’m not worried in the least about whether we will raise him well. Not in the least. He will be what he will be. What is required of us is to be the best version of ourselves. But that has always been the order; the arrival of a child just reinforces its importance. So on that front, nothing has changed.
What he has taught me already is two things: (1) things change; just accept it. My years of gallavanting about the world, having random adventures that can only be revealed in my memoirs, are probably over; this is the adventure now. And (2) “it” is not, and never has been, about me. Although it is, because your life is always about you. But there is comfort and clarity in knowing why and for whom you do things; and I have that now.
Hope smiles from the threshold, my droogies. And it will indeed be happier.