Acqua Alta

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We learned too late that 70 percent of Venice was underwater even as our train approached the city. No chance to turn around. Wind, rain and ankle-deep water met us outside the station as in the dark we waited for a Vaporetto boat to the hotel. At C’a D’Oro, we wheeled our suitcases through flooded streets that soaked our shoes and pants. We fought the current through the hotel lobby and were ushered up to the second floor and instructed to carefully scrub our shoes. Acqua Alta – the highest in decades – seemed, for a few hours at least, like the only catastrophe in our small world. 

One always enjoys a sense of unreality, a delicious distance from the quotidian when traveling, especially abroad. Time stops. Decisions get smaller – where to go, what to eat, how to work the wifi.  Over the next few days, with the help of tall and hearty borrowed boots, we learned the streets to avoid and how to decipher the warning sirens and accompanying musical code that tells city residents just how high the water is expected to be.  We saw the sights, we walked for miles, we took pictures, we planned the next meal and consumed it. Only occasionally did we allow into our periphery the uproar we were missing back at home – nasty politics, lies and more lies, hate crimes, falling markets - accounts of a country, by all appearances, that is coming apart at the seams. 

Venice is, above all else, a beautiful but unsustainable monument to a civilization marked over centuries by the excesses of the rich. It is easy to be seduced by its beauty and, without understanding the detail of its history, we can admire the city’s remarkable architecture; without knowing the language, we can easily minimize its current challenges, and romanticize everything we see.  

“Let’s stay here!” we exclaim over a plate of cichetti in a small back-street osteria where we are the only customers. “Let’s buy some boots and find a place to live!” 

“Where are all the people?” we ask when we’re done testing the theory and ready to leave. The lonely couple behind the counter speak no English; they only shake their heads. “Acqua Alta,” the husband sighs. “You – America?” he asks. We nod. “Trump! Ai, yi, yi!” He shakes his hand as if to rid it of a sticky glue, and the only thing I can think to answer is, “I’m sorry.”

I’m sorry. I’m sorry for the terrible incivility and intolerance that goes beyond politics to the core of who we have become. I’m sorry for the anger on all sides. I’m sorry for the painful lack of leadership and dearth of ideas and even desire to improve our nation. I miss the compassion we used to show to the world. How did we miss the signs of a country lurching toward the brink? I’m tired of the fear. I’m tired of the greed. I’m tired. I’m sad. But I’m also feeling guilty. Although we voted before we came, and though I’ve written over 700 personal postcards to get out the vote and donated money to a variety of campaigns, I feel guilty. I have worked harder for this election than any other in my lifetime, yet I am away for the final push, the defining moments, and not only do I feel guilty for my absence, I feel guilty for being glad that I’m not there.

This morning, we woke to the sirens outside our Venice window. Another flood is coming.  By the time we go downstairs, water makes waves across the garden and seeps underneath the heavy wooden door that opens to a roiling canal. 

The truth is this: things aren’t so great here either – the economy is crashing; the politics may be as toxic as our own. Immigration issues divide this nation too. The buildings are crumbling, the tourists are flooding the streets…. and the water is rising. It’s time to go home. 

Tomorrow we’ll be traveling across the ocean and backwards through time to rejoin our country as the election’s votes are counted. We will probably only know the outcome when we land. This election cannot solve all our problems or stitch us back into a working country. But maybe it’s our Acqua Alta moment, when we Americans realize that the water’s rising and we need to clean the shit off of our shoes.

A Bet on Love and Grace

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At the bottom of City Hall’s grand staircase we stand like a pair of leathered old geese in a gaggle of young and eager brides. In light, white, and layered gowns, they float past and up the marble steps to find a less-cluttered spot for recording the perfect, wedding-album kiss. Cameras flash. Laughter echoes in the light. Mothers flutter over daughters, fixing wisps of hair, adjusting billows of lace. Lights flash again. We blink, but stay put, not even tempted to ascend and test the wellness of John’s heart, the weakness of my hips. No selfie on the stairs for us.

Coming to City Hall for a marriage license is among other items on the day’s to-do list as we prepare for the real celebration now less than two weeks away. This particular task carries, surprisingly, less emotional impact than yesterday’s milestone, John’s first formal haircut in fifteen years (now, there was angst). It’s not that we’re ambivalent about getting married, I can assure you, or nonchalant about registering our relationship with the State. The fact that there’s no compelling practical reason for us to do either makes these actions all the more significant – we are marrying as a celebration of what already exists between us, not what is yet to come. Still, right now, amidst the drama that surrounds us, we feel a little silly, like we’ve walked into a dream other than our own. 

Down a narrow hall beneath the stairs we wait our turn behind a bride in full regalia, Princess of Hope, her fiancé lounged beside her in a casual jacket and jeans that look brand new in spite of all the careful tears.  They face a patient clerk behind a spartan counter, in a room of tired yellow walls, a soundless screen announcing numbers of those who’re next in line. I watch the couple sign their forms and silently wish them luck and happiness for all of the adventures that lie ahead - the good ones and the hard. Ours is a much less daunting commitment: John and I already know how much the other snores.

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The Census Bureau reports that the median duration of marriages in the United States today is eight years. Wow, just eight years. We have been friends for 50 years and a couple for twelve, so we’ve already beaten the odds. We may or may not live long enough to double either number, but our chances of happiness for the duration are pretty good - the hard stuff is behind us, or most of it, at least. There is nothing left to prove in either our relationship or our lives. We will not have to juggle careers or take turns sitting up with sick children. We are each financially set and even better off together; we don’t have to worry about how to balance mortgage, food, and medicine, at least for now, and we know how to do that if need be. Our parents are gone and our children are middle-aged and very mid-careers; we have no one to care for but each other. And since we quickly forget the punch lines to jokes and the plots to novels, we have enough of both to get us over the finish line. While the end of life is certainly no picnic, if anybody has the means to face it, we do. Together. All this has given us the freedom NOT to marry, but to go on as we are. And by the same token, it gives us permission to say what the heck, and line up for a marriage license in City Hall. 

The writer Deborah Eisenberg recently told the New York Times, “People always talk about how horrible old age is, but I couldn’t disagree more. I find [old] age is as intense as adolescence. You know you could hurtle off a cliff at any second. And because of that there’s a sense of destiny, of apprehending things, of love that isn’t available — or wasn’t available to me — earlier. You feel: I’ve survived this ordeal, and now I don’t have to worry. I know how my life has worked out. All the anxiety that I put into the hard questions has fallen away. I can take my satisfactions where they are.” 

I agree. Life is short and getting shorter. And we are the luckiest people on earth. So, at an age where we can do anything we want, why not bet on love?

“Not sure we really belong here,” John jokes as we reach the counter, papers in hand, “we don’t really fit in.” 

The clerk looks up and studies us, confused.

“We’re old.” He nods toward the couple that has paused again for pictures and then points to himself and me in turn. 

The clerk looks a little relieved. “Oh, that. We get all kinds here. I’m sure you’re fine.” She returns to the papers and studies our dates of birth. “Do you want a souvenir license to hang on your wall?” 

“No,” we laugh, “just tell us where to sign.”

After a celebratory lunch we drive through Golden Gate Park and stop at the fly casting ponds, a magical, hidden space where the sounds of the city disappear enough to reveal every snap as the anglers cast, and the whir of their lines gracefully snaking 90, 100, 110 feet across the water. Over and over again they cast. We settle on a bench to watch. The pools are clear and blue, surrounded by eucalyptus and shrub. The sun is bright. We are content. On the porch nearby, a man I would, a decade ago, have called ‘old’ and now consider a compatriot nods when I look his way and then leans forward in his wheelchair as if to will the anglers’ lines a few feet farther still. He smiles to himself when the arc of a cast is true. 

This is our life now. John and I are at peace with ourselves and happy to be together reading, or laughing with our collective kids, or walking through the woods, or watching from across the decades young brides take their turn at dancing on the stairs, the grace of anglers trying to get it right.  We’ve bet on love and grace today, and now we have the official papers to prove it.

The Color of Hope

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It’s as unlikely as anything else that has happened this year, that a set of colorful pens would be my political and emotional salvation, but that’s where I am – returning gratefully from despair and, worse, anger, to a sense of purpose and forward motion.

In the beginning of this political cycle, postcards left the house in stacks, aimed at politicians who surely, I reasoned, would be swayed by my volume, my arguments for right and decency, and my serious, black ink. The fact that my efforts have proven naïve and useless, makes it too easy to give up. What can I do? Wait? Close my eyes? Whenever I think about blogging here about anything but politics – such as the glorious garden behind my new home, and the testament to love that is in the offing (after 50 years, my best friend John and I are marrying) – I feel guilt at my own pleasure when everything around me has turned to crap. Everyone but me is suffering, and it’s only getting worse. On the one hand, I’m told, silence is surrender (‘what would you be doing if this was 1939? Exactly this – nothing’), on the other, I’m told that my efforts are at best, those of a privileged white woman who hasn’t got a clue or an ounce of courage. And this, from the people who agree with me about the dangerous hole that we are falling into.

Worst of all, on every side, I see a meanness emerging in our culture and discourse more open and naked than I can ever remember, and it scares me, because it has been creeping into my own heart, too… Until, that is, I bought the pens in bright and optimistic hues.

It’s not that I’ve stopped paying attention, doodling my way blithely to a state of denial. It’s not that I’ve curbed my addiction to the nightly news. It’s not that I’m giving up righteous indignation at the lying, greed, cynicism, ambition, ignorance, and cruelty dancing on the political stage, but I’m not going to live in anger anymore. I will, as long as I am able, resist sinking into the ugly muck where others want to take me. My pens have helped me make a start.

I have switched now to writing to voters, those who ultimately have the power to bring democracy back on course. Nearly ever week there is a special election somewhere in the country, with courageous, optimistic, hard-working Democratic candidates who want a chance to serve. Changing the players is the only way out, and I am volunteering through an organization called Postcards to Voters to help. We send out friendly, cheerful reminders to individual Democrats in the affected local districts to vote in these important, off-season state and national races.  Our postcards, of course, are not the only factor in the outcome, but there is evidence the strategy is working and candidates are now attesting to the power of our silly pens. In some cases, districts have actually flipped. In others, the turnout is not quite enough, but shows gains in double digits. That’s why it’s important to keep going. It takes so little effort to reach out, and it feels so dang good.

Every day I hang my pretty cards on the mailbox and think about them wending their way towards someone who will appreciate the connection and will gain strength from the reminder that, though we may be thousands of miles apart, we are not in this alone. There is something we can do to resurrect the values that have made this country great.

Over 10,000 volunteers are now using the Postcards to Voters app to connect with individual voters. They provide you everything you need. If you would like to join us, go to www.PostcardstoVoters.org or email join@Tonythedemocrat.org.