• Daniel Ethan Finneran

The Life Of A Year: Part I

December 2017

Each year thinks itself more extraordinary than the last. It’s not quite a boast or a brag that makes a year think such a thought, but rather a self-sure pride that comes with the passage of time. Each year comes to see itself as being more enlightened than the past, more immediate than the present moment, and more farseeing than the days to come. So far as it’s concerned, this year—the one in which we live—is the most memorable of all. It’s at once the best and the worst, the most fulfilled and wanting, and the most revolutionary and reluctant. Where its predecessor was prosaic, it’s poetic. Where its parent was humdrum, it’s brand new. Above all, though, it leaves its mark.

Such is the life of the year. But what about the life in the year? For all its indefatigable motion, it ends no sooner than it begins. Like a prophecy self-fulfilled, it hurries along its own demise while its clock continues to spin. The long crawl of its days passes in the blink of an eye. Its weeks become blurred and indiscrete. Its stubborn months melt one into the next. Season yields to season—summer, winter, fall. It demands our attention, but dashes from sight. And before you know it, with the snap of a finger, or a late morning’s rise, it’s gone. All then that’s left, is to ask where it's gone, admit you haven't a clue, and proceed to reflect on another year peeled away.

Looking back, over the past three-hundred and sixty some odd days, four moments stand out most to me. Perhaps I'd do better in calling them collections of moments, rather than individual events. Either way, however I group them, it feels like naming only four is naming too few. They're but a small fraction of the many moments that made up this inexhaustible year. How am I to restrain myself and not extend into everything that’s gone on? Such a jam-packed year can hardly be accounted for in one piece. It’s a challenge better writers than I have faced—that is, whittling down in digestible bites the ups and downs of any given time. For this year, though, four moments will do.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit one thing from the start. Namely, it’s that this list is a subjective affair. It’s unabashedly original. It must be. I’ve chosen here the four moments (all of them to have happened in America) that I personally found most salient. These are the moments that struck me most, though they might not have earned the most searches or re-tweets. Perhaps, another gauge or Google analytic could do better, but we’ll leave that to the engineer or social scientist. Right then…let’s begin.

Their order doesn’t reflect their importance, but the moments are these: natural disasters, including fires and hurricanes, from the west coast to the east, mass shootings in Texas and Nevada, the slow and painful death of morality in entertainment, media, and politics, and Donald Trump’s fledgling presidency.

All but three were acts of man. They were brought about by flesh and bone, by depravity or ambition, or both. Only one, however, was an act of god. The natural disasters that shook this country were numerous and severe. Between three hurricanes and two fires, America smoldered from coast to coast. Towns were ravaged and cities torn asunder. Beginning west and returning east, we start with the fires. They erupted in the jewel of California’s crown, Napa Valley, and the breathtakingly lush wine country for which it receives its acclaim. For weeks in the mid-summer heat, the fire’s intractable blaze engulfed everything in its sight. It razed vineyards and communities and schools and freeways without a second thought. It spared no grape, no seed, no parent or child. And it continued in this way, albeit sporadically, well into the fall. At that point it swelled and was given its Christian name, Tubbs, in a baptism by fire.

The air became acrid, as Tubbs consumed vineyards and schoolyards with an appetite as insatiable as it was indiscriminate. Oenophiles and sommeliers mourned the loss of their ancient crop and turned to their patron saint Dionysus to intervene. But not even the god of drink would dare step foot in a hell on earth. Sadder still was the loss of human life. The flames killed 22, while afflicting many others—too numerous to count—with acute respiratory distress, burns, and psychological harm. Lives, homes, and memories were lost in a smoldering, soot-filled waste. Even as I write this now, the flames persist. They rage in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties, where over 200,000 acres have already been consumed. A small victory, though, appears to be approaching; containment, they say, has exceeded 80%.

From fires in valleys, we move next to hurricanes and cities. They were three—the hurricanes, that is—a triumvirate of death, destruction, and disrepair. First was Hurricane Harvey. In August, it landed in Houston, and at once incapacitated the bustling town below. Not since the Galveston storm of 1900 had so much rain fallen or rubbish been strewn about. At over 50 inches, the torrential rain was biblical and at over 100 miles per hour, the winds were apocryphal. After its initial landfall, Harvey dallied indecisively between hurricane, tropical depression, and tropical storm. Finally, having had its fun and having destroyed much of Houston and the Gulf Coast states, it returned to the clouds from which it came. It dissipated and died in the very place it was born.

It wasn’t long before Harvey’s sequel lumbered onto the scene. She went by the name Irma, and was brobdingnagian by birth; her reach was so wide and her appetite so endless, that she nearly swallowed in one gulp the Caribbean Sea. For her, the Edenic little island chains and archipelagos were no match. From St. Marteen to St. Croix and Barbuda, Dominica, and Guadeloupe, the islands stood their ground, but didn’t stand a chance. Irma, it turned out, was far more powerful than anything they’d ever seen. She trampled through those islands—remnants, all of them, of Europe’s imperial reach—before turning upward through the Florida Keys. Surpassing Hurricane Andrew in size but not speed, she set out on a long march up Florida’s spine. From quaint Marco Island in the southwest to bustling Jacksonville in the northeast, no city was unscathed. The sunshine state, in the course of an afternoon and evening, was torn apart. Power was lost, water was putrid, homes were condemned, and people were stranded in shelters for days on end.

We were sure that, when measured against Irma, there could be nothing worse. And we thought that, after sustaining so much damage between Texas and Florida, we’d had our share and there wouldn’t be anything else. Alas, our hopes dashed, we were wrong on both counts. Irma, it turns out, was merely the penultimate storm. Eagerly in wait behind her was Hurricane Maria.

Maria came with the urgency of a climax and the pain of a tragedy. Not wanting to be overshadowed by Harvey or Irma, she ripped a hole through America’s unattached and oft-forgotten territory—Puerto Rico. With winds over 170 miles per hour and irrepressible rain, Maria was the worst storm the island had yet seen in its history. She moved east to west, leaving no stone on the island untouched and no branch unbroken. With whatever clemency she could muster, though, she dodged America’s mainland and skipped out to sea. This, however, was little consolation for Puerto Ricans on the ground. They were left there, wretched, and without food, power, or medicine. Succor from the federal government was slow to arrive. The life-line between San Juan and D.C. seemed to be wearing dangerously thin. People languished, their patience frayed, and eventually, their anger erupted. They pleaded for help to an oblivious protector, as if they were a forgotten nation. Just as their exasperation trickled to its last drop, help finally came. But even still, as things currently stand, it will be many months before Puerto Rico returns to a semblance of life before the storm, much less to normal functioning.

If those natural disasters are our first “moment” of 2017, then these man-made disasters are our second. First at a country-music concert and then at a countryside church, two gunmen forever changed in Americans’ the meaning of the words “mass shooting”. Between the two shootings, a combined 85 people were killed and 573 wounded. The numbers are as staggering as they are nauseating; you’d think them better suited for third-world battle scenes than on America soil. But the sad truth is that this many people were killed in their moments of revelry and religion, party and prayer, in the freest country the world has ever known.

With malice aforethought and blackness in his soul, Stephen Paddock climbed five flights of stairs in the Mandalay Bay hotel. In a bag slung over his shoulder and another carried at his side, he had the weapons for a massacre the likes of which we’ve never seen. Hung on his hotel door was the sign, “do not disturb”, but hanging more ominously behind his eyes was a mind irretrievably so. From those bags, he flooded his suite with AR-15 rifles, bump-stocks for rapidity, scopes for accuracy, and scores of munitions. Then, nestled in his turret, perched high above the unassuming concert-goers below, he let loose his rage. He didn’t so much as aim, but rather sprayed bullets wantonly out onto the scene.

It lasted minutes, but felt like days. In desperation, people lunged for cover in a barren space where no cover was to be had. Shelter was sparse, barricades few, and the “active” in active shooter was living up to his name. He emptied his endless rounds and rained terror on all who scrambled to escape. At long last, authorities made their brave ascent to his 52nd-floor suite. There, wafting in the air was the fetid stench of his guns spewing and his putrid soul. He turned on his new threat in a fury—he planned to escape the sanguinary scene in one piece. He sent a volley out into the hall, but the mounting pressure and the reality of his situation was too grim. It became insufferable, and knowing that his time was up, he turned the gun against himself and lessened its weight by exactly one bullet. In all, Paddock killed 59 and wounded 527. We’ve still not been able to attribute to him a motive, and probably never will.

The same can’t be said of the second killer on our list. His name was Devin Kelley, and at the age of 26, he was decades younger than the enigmatic Paddock. It wasn’t just age, though, that distinguished the two. Paddock, from what we’ve been told, was an anomaly of sorts. All signs point to someone you’d expect not to be a killer. He was a man of some means—quiet but indulgent, who shared his time equally between multiple homes and casinos. He was unhinged, granted, but he lacked the criminal history that might’ve led us this conclusion.

Kelley, on the other hand, sprang forth from an ugly past. He was malicious, barbarous, and psychologically unwell. Calling him a brute would be unkind to brutes and a beast, unkind to beasts. He was more reprobate than man. He lashed out in violence against his young wife, her infant child, and his small dog. No sentient being, it seems, was immune to his incivility. Because of his unstable and aggressive personality, he was removed from service in the Air Force. He was made to attend a psychiatric facility, from which he quickly escaped. He returned to “civilian” life, if one could call it that, where he worked as a security guard and, in this capacity, was able to acquire some guns.

Mid-morning on a Sunday, before the football games had begun, he entered the small church of his Sutherland Springs home. Days earlier, he had had an argument with his girlfriend’s family and reckoned they’d be there before their god. With tactical precision and a capable trigger, he showered the congregation in bullets. Again, for minutes that felt like days, the tiny Texas church house was under attack. This place of hymns and praise echoed in a sanguinary chorus. With no exit and no defense, the congregants were left to the slaughter like fenced-in sheep. Kelley shot 46 people, of whom 26 died. Unlike Paddock, Kelley was able to flee his scene. But ultimately, their ends were to be shared; Kelley committed suicide in his truck on the side of a dusty country road.

In the short span of two months, America was again changed forever; it’s the ultimate toll of every mass shooting. Now, parishioners are no longer able to congregate in peace and at ease. As for the partygoers, their days of insouciance and carefree fun are gone. We return, as too often we do, to looking for emergency exits and anxiously scanning the skies.

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