Make a Little Trouble Out There

“Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady. I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there.”

Nora Ephron

To the 1996 Wellesley graduating class

There are certain famous people who, when they die, I feel the loss personally, though I never had a personal relationship with them.

Nora Ephron is one of those people. I loved reading everything she wrote, loved seeing every movie she wrote and/or directed. Loved Love, Loss, What I Wore, the play she and her sister Delia co-authored (based on a book by Ilene Beckerman).

She made feminism fun, someone wrote. She did, because her form of feminism included romantic comedies, and saw the value of a good marriage.

Take a leap with me now, if you will.

We just came through an election (in case you didn’t notice). The choice was clear to me: the old paradigm (Traditional) versus the new paradigm (Traditional Shmraditional: Let’s Get Real About Reality).

Single women voted overwhelmingly for Obama, because, the ladies of Fox News proclaimed, they were selfish. They thought only of themselves and their birth control pills. In their worldview, married women voted for Romney because they had children and so were concerned about the future—the future of their children.

Their children, I would point out. Not children. Their children.

This of course assumes that none of those single women who voted for Obama had children.

Traditional shmraditional: Let’s Get Real about Reality.

I spent the weekend before Thanksgiving at a retreat. Many of the participants were gay men who were in their early to mid thirties. They were born, I realized, about the time (late 1980) I began volunteering with the Hospice program at San Francisco General Hospital. Earlier that year, a small article, published deep in the first section of the San Francisco Chronicle, noted that a number of gay men had been diagnosed with a type of cancer that had previously been seen primarily in elderly Italian and Jewish men. It was Karposi’s sarcoma.

Soon after that came the articles about a mysterious gay cancer, then gay-related immune deficiency syndrome (GRID), and speculation about reasons for this phenomenon. Poppers? Drugs?

Soon after that, San Francisco General Hospital was inundated with what became the AIDS epidemic, and young gay men began showing up as hospice patients. In 1983, an AIDS ward was established at SFGH, not to isolate AIDS patients, but rather to ensure that the emotional as well as physical needs of patients were met.

It broke the model of hospital wards: the rooms that were normally reserved for staff (one for nurses, the other for physicians) became a community room where patients and staff socialized. Staff was encouraged to engage with patients, to not distance themselves, to shed tears with them, hold them when they cried, laugh with them when it was time to laugh. Staff supported each other. They were encouraged to take care of themselves, to acknowledge the toll it took on them, and take a break when needed.

This was at a time when terminally ill patients, regardless of the illness, tended to be isolated—treated as failures by the medical model that put physicians at the top of the delivery system.

I wrote an article for the hospice newsletter about the ward. Over a three-hour period I sat in the community room, listening to patients talk about their experience on the ward—friends decorated their rooms, patients became active in their care.

The AIDS epidemic raised bigger health issues, the clinical coordinator who developed the ward believed. He believed that the AIDS ward could serve as a model for how health care can be delivered.

It’s funny how memory works. I had forgotten about my visit to the AIDS ward until the retreat. The experience of this generation of gay men was far different from what was happening to their age group thirty years ago.

I was single during that time. I had no children. I don’t know whether not having children freed me to get as involved as I did with hospice. I also worked with the Gray Panthers, advocating for nursing home reform, advocating for changing the way the medical community delivered geriatric health care, standing up against age discrimination. I also worked at a center for independence of the disabled, where I became involved in advocating for removing impediments that banished people with disabilities to the backrooms of our society.

I did all of this because I was concerned about the future—mine and those who came after me.

I have stepchildren now. Our Thanksgiving was one of the smallest it has been in a number of years. Two of my stepdaughters were there, my step grandsons, my husband, and the son of a friend who now lives in Texas. Normally, I relish a large crowd, but this year, the intimacy of it comforted me. The people seated at the table loved and cared about each other. They wanted to be there.

I care about their future. Their future includes good health care, security in age, a world in which women have control over their reproductive health.

Being concerned about one’s children is natural. But to think that all one has to be concerned about is one’s own children is to doom oneself to a La Brea tar pit.

Women, real women, care about the world, as well as their families. They know that they are interdependent.

The ladies of Fox News don’t understand that. They chose to be a lady, to accept the status quo, to possess love of family, and definition of family, as a value that they and they alone possess.

Gay marriage was barely a dream thirty years ago. Gay adoption hardly on the horizon.

With this election, I think we chose shmradition over tradition. A black family lives in the White House. Gay marriage will soon, I think, be a nonissue. There will just be marriage—a commitment between two people who love and are committed to each other. Some married couples will want to raise a family, others will choose to remain childless.

The people who have taught me the most over my life are the ones who made a little trouble out there—the ones who threw tradition aside, who risked disapproval so that the human heart could experience the breadth of humans being human.

Put on your hats and gloves, straighten the seam in your hose, and go make a little trouble out there. The world is ready for the heart of a woman to forge her path in life.