24 Hours or So, One Week Out

This Tuesday, October 27th, I came to lab pandemic-early for a call with a collaborator on a new project. It’s a multiple lab effort and still in the earliest stages, where everyone is throwing around crazy ideas and the urge to attempt something that hasn’t been done before—that most basic of scientific urges—is running hot. Then I taught an (online) graduate course about chromatin biology and gene regulation. Then I ate lunch, read a paper, tried (with partial success) to fix an incubator/shaker in our core facility, got my now compulsory test at the Wooden Center, went for a walk around campus with a member of the lab and had a zoom call with another. Then I set off for home. It was around 7:00pm.

Game 6 had started about 90 minutes earlier and when I got home, the score was 1-nil and the Ray’s manager was in the midst of making what has now, a few days later, been universally deemed the worst call in recent baseball history. As a transplant to Los Angeles, coming up this November on my 18th year in the city (longer than I have lived anywhere else), I am nonetheless a late comer to both the game of baseball and the Dodgers. The details of my adult conversion are irrelevant, but suffice it to say that I now relish the pace of the game, the analytics, I love the precision, the “stuff,” the banter at first base, the incessant mastication and expectoration, the coded language, the standing around doing nothing for long stretches of time, the millisecond decisions that win or lose games. I also love that Dodgers fans, like the city, welcome bandwagon jumpers like me. They both understand the Janus-faced nature of what they are, and that that’s the appeal and that that’s why we have finally come around. So, when my neighbors were running down the street shouting, lighting fireworks and doing burnouts, I knew it was for me as much as for themselves and for the players. We had done this together.

The next morning at 7:00am, our department hosted the US Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams to give grand rounds (alas, remotely). He started by thanking the physicians and providers for their sacrifices over the past 8 months, for the lives they saved. He then directly addressed the intersection of politics and healthcare, challenging us to consider a Faustian bargain between our candidate losing and the vanishing of the pandemic, versus the opposite of both. He spoke about—and with—empathy, pushing his audience to consider what we can do to alleviate uncontrolled hypertension, healthcare disparities, threats to mental health, and the opioid epidemic. He fielded questions about the politics of masks (how inane would that phrase have sounded earlier this year?), vaccines and gun control.

The poise of the Dodgers’ bullpen and the playmaking of Austin, Mookie and Corey, plus the measured and rational argument, perhaps tacit, of the nation’s top doctor to reflect on the core principles that lead someone to devote their life to higher learning, education, discovery, problem solving and—yes—open debate and disagreement, put me on a plane from which I have yet to come down. Yes, Justin Turner came back on to the field sans mask after being popped with a positive test (can you really blame the guy?), but baseball had already pulled off with their bubble an exemplary rebuke to those who would say that free enterprise cannot coexist with promotion of public well-being. Yes, the toll from this pandemic is immeasurable across all aspects of humanity, but there’s no path to defeating it that runs through tribalism. To do something different, we have to start thinking and talking about something different. The day after is coming.

Tom Vondriska, 10/28/2020