Takes A Pro

Big time comedian Aniz Ansari recently did 13 shows in town over a few weekends, using a small local venue to work on material for a big concert tour coming up.

He was so impressed by one local comic he saw in the shows that he requested that she open and host all upcoming shows here.  He sees big things for her.  “She needs to move to New York City,” he said. “I can see a career for her for sure. She’s gifted. She just needs to get the (hell) out of here.”

That local comic is a transwoman, Jaye McBride.

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Her aging father out of hospital in a nursing/rehab facility and not getting better after a month  my sister’s friend would get in touch to dump on me, get some perspective, move past her exhaustion and frustration, and get some support.

She knew well that I had gone through the same kind of challenges with my parents.

I worked with her to organize her concerns about what was falling through the cracks in the facility, to put them on paper.  Giving them structure wasn’t easy; she was so pounded by seeing failures affect her father that she felt whipped about, pulled in all directions by emotion.

She went in with the document to use for notes in a case meeting with higher staff.   To her surprise, they responded quickly, even addressing the most obvious failures.

Even more surprising, the night charge nurse was more responsive and interactive.   Her expectation was that people would be more upset if she went in and laid out the problems with clarity and precision, rather than just doing what she had been doing, getting upset and pointing out every small failure.

For years, I had explained to her that the way to be effective in a medical setting was to become part of the care team.   You have to believe that the staff really do want positive outcomes for patients, they just have to achieve them within the rules, guidelines, constraints and challenges that the system imposes.

Their nightmare is family that treat them like waiters and maids, demanding attention for every little thing they see that would give comfort to their loved one.    They have so much work that the wavering demands of family just become frustrating and noisy.

Their delight, though, is family who do the job of being both companions and advocates for the patient.

Patients need, but don’t always have, someone who can make them feel comfortable, heard and connected to home, getting the bits from outside that the facility just can’t provide.

Patients in the hospital are sick and alone, working to heal.   They also need someone who can make them feel safe, advocating for them, helping them work through the decisions and emotions of treatment, working to find strategies and recalibrate expectations about what normal can be.

Staff like people who help them help patients.    They sometimes don’t even seem to remember that we are doing it for the patient and not just to make their life easier, both of us wanting the same thing, to get our loved one better and out of the hospital bed.

When my sister’s friend did the hard work of creating a report about her father, summoning up what felt like impossible mental energy to do it, she approached the challenges like a professional who was committed to finding shared, workable solutions.

Rather than just pointing out problems as they came up, the team has patterns to work with, which respect their constraints.  In this case, for example, the laundry is failing, which means no patients are getting what they need.   Rather than just be upset with the failures, just as all staff are upset with the failure, making their job harder, she focused on solutions, like buying new clothes and doing laundry at home.

When she took the report in, she stopped having to just be upset with low-level aides who were not doing what she thought they should and instead engaged management who could understand problems and direct solutions.

Much like Aniz Ansari, a comedian who has done the work, participated in a hit sitcom, specials, books and more, the long term professionals at the facility could see, engage and respect my sister’s friend’s professionalism.   They could meet her on that ground and work together within the constraints of the way that things are, something they couldn’t do with an amateur who just whined about the way things “should be.”

It takes a pro to recognize another pro.    No amount of struggling comics or fan audiences could easily see Ms. McBride’s real, professional approach to the work, instead needing to stay stuck in their own limited defensive perimeter.

My sister’s friend was proud she pulled it out, even if she knows that there are other challenges, other battles still to be fought.   She knows that with the aging, the end game is obvious, that only the amount of care required goes uphill.   For her, this is a return to her career as a special needs teacher where she worked out plans for individual students to address their needs within the limits and possibilities of the system.

“I know you told me all this before,” she said to me, “but this time I really think I got it.”   She did, but we will see how needy and messy humanity keep challenging that professional stance that is required to be a valued member of the care team.

For myself, I know that I have the training and discipline to be a professional.  What I don’t have, though, are other professionals who want to work with me, want to be on the team to get what I need to get done.

Over my decades, I have heard many transwomen who wanted to blend into society as normative, their own trans nature becoming silent and invisible though some means or another.

“Who the hell wants to be a professional tranny?” they would ask.

I understood and respected that position.   One of my biggest surprises was when I did a marketing presentation and the questions I got after was about the content, not about trans.  We want our work to be the focus, not our weirdness.

The problem for me, as Kate Bornstein recognized when she heard me do a keynote speech twenty years ago, is that much of my work is about putting transgender into a bigger context.   It is about claiming and celebrating continuous common humanity.

That makes me a professional tranny, not just, say, a professional marine engineer who happens to be trans.  A theologian deals in stories, not in engines and pipes, and my stories have to be grounded in finding connections in my experience, which is unabashedly trans.

It takes a professional to see and respect another professional.

I am pleased that my sister’s friend could come from her professionalism and feel respect as she worked together with them for change.

I am thrilled and delighted that Jaye McBride got her professionalism recognized and supported, though I have no idea if she wants the exposure of the big time now.  She has to be a professional transwoman on stage, knowing she can’t have a unique and powerful voice if she just tries to hide her experience, and that takes work that has a price Mr. Ansari probably doesn’t understand.

Finding professional theologians and transpeople, though, is not something you come across routinely.  My own skills and challenges don’t feel recognize and respected.  There is no team for me.

But it takes a professional to recognize a professional.  The more I get close to pros, those at the top of the work, the more chance I have to be seen and valued.

In my professional opinion, though, that is quite a challenging ask.

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