If April is indeed the cruellest month, then March may be the strangest. The month began with the bizarre fallout from The Couch Incident. (Imagine it as a Robert Ludlum thriller, like The Osterman Weekend.) In late February, President Trump met with leaders from the nation's historically black universities and colleges in the Oval Office to commemorate Black History Month (and the "amazing job Frederick Douglass has done"). Pictures of the meeting showed the counselor to the president, Kellyanne Conway, seated with her knees tucked under her on a couch with the heedlessness of a cheerleader at a slumber party. Conway's bare feet on the couch nearly broke the Internet. More attention was paid to Conway's perceived lack of decorum or disrespect to the Oval Office than to the blackwashing nature of the event itself. Trump's budget plan, released two weeks later, made his lack of commitment to education, minority or otherwise, clear: His administration was seeking to cut $9.2 billion—13.5 percent—from the Education Department's budget.
Then on March 4, there was the early morning tweet from Trump accusing the former president of electronic eavesdropping: "How low has President Obama gone to tapp [sic] my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!" This unsubstantiated accusation turned out to be just another instance of Trump tweeting out whatever oddments of conspiracy Fox News happened to be peddling at the moment, and was being wished away by the rest of the administration until Conway was back in the news again on March 12, suggesting that Obama may have spied on Trump via home appliances. "There are many ways to surveil each other now, unfortunately," Conway told Mike Kelly of the Bergen Record. "There was an article this week that talked about how you can surveil someone through their phones, certainly through their television sets, any number of different ways. And microwaves that turn into cameras, et cetera."
In contrast to the ongoing craziness in Washington, I spent the month in a relatively normal manner. Some excerpts from my shockingly banal activities in March.
Saturday, March 4
Tidying up my home office, I find a folder of childhood ephemera my mother foisted on me last summer. It's full of book reports (Little House on the Prairie) and photos (see above). The one from seventh grade is typical. I excelled in language arts and social studies, I struggled in math and science, and didn't live up to my potential. That's just my grades. In the category of "Personal Growth and Community Awareness"—which is a euphemism for "This Is the Spot Where the School Will Tell You if Your Kid Is a Discipline Problem"—I am "Commendable" in all areas (Shows Respect, Cooperates with Others, Carries Out Responsibilities, Complies with School Policies) except one: Shows Self-Control. For all three marking periods that year, I received a grade of "Unsatisfactory" from my teacher, Mrs. Kennedy. Which leads me to question whether my self-control has improved at all in 30+ years. Too bad Mrs. Kennedy isn't still around to ask.
Wednesday, March 8
Chronogram hosts the second in its Conversations series at Atlas Industries & Studios in Newburgh (Chronogram Conversations, page 19). Close to 100 people show up, and they're fired up to talk about Newburgh's potential. There's food, drinks, and a lively panel discussion with community leaders and businesspeople followed by audience participation. Newburghers are passionate about their city, probably the citizens most fiercely loyal to their home turf that I've encountered in the region.
Before the event, we sent out an invite with a link to an RSVP form which included the following question: "What excites you about how Newburgh is changing?" I've included a couple of the answers from attendees below. It captures some of the current climate of enthusiasm.
"I am 4th generation Newburgh, my kids are 5th. The energy and optimism and forward thinking is palpable. New visitors, new residents, new investments, and new ideas are accepted with a new assumption as to when and how we are going to be successful together rather than the old 'if.'"
"We just moved to Newburgh last June. However, in the small amount of time we have been here we have seen an immense amount of change. Every day we see new faces in the community and the energy and excitement of Newburgh's impending revitalization is infectious. Most importantly, we were welcomed to this tight-knit community with open arms."
Sunday, March 12
Back in February, when it the temperatures were unseasonably temperate, I made a plan to hike up Wittenberg Mountain with my buddy Chuck. Wittenberg is one of the highest Catskill Peaks (elevation 3,780'), and it's about four miles to the top from the trailhead on Woodland Valley Road outside Phoenicia. The summit has one of the most dazzling views of the Catskill High Peaks, a panoramic view of the Ashokan Reservoir below and Overlook Mountain and the other peaks along the escarpment to the east.
We hit the trail with our dogs shortly after 9am. The temperature was in the single digits. (Knowing how cold it was going to be, I waged a campaign to try and get out of the hike all week, texting Chuck messages like "It's going to be a bit icy toward the summit. Do you have the right gear?" and "Are you sure you're going to be warm enough?" and "I'm not entirely sold on this." The thread culminated with me writing "I have nothing to prove," to which Chuck replied: "We all have something to prove." Fair enough. It seemed there was no getting out of it.)
By the time we reached the summit my mustache was covered in frozen stalactites and my fingers were stiffening worryingly in my gloves. Even Shazam the Wonder Dog looked fairly miserable. We marveled at the view, wolfed down sandwiches, took a couple quick sips of whiskey, and picked our way carefully down over the chutes of ice.
Back at the trailhead almost six hours after we started, we were bushwhacked. After a bite at the Phoenicia Diner, we headed our separate ways. At home, Shazam walked over the couch to jump up but couldn't seem to make the leap. His legs had no spring in them. He just dropped to the floor and fell asleep.
Tuesday, March 21
On our morning walk in the park, after scrambling up and over a snowbank and into the woods—for what I assumed was his morning constitutional—Shazam returned with a corndog in his mouth. Like he was retuning to his seat at a ball game after visiting the concession stand. He reacted the same way you might if I grabbed a corndog out of your mouth.