Saturday, December 22, 2012

Department Store Santa Redux

This story was originally posted before, re-edited, and posted it again ... well, it’s Christmas again, and I’ve revisited the story and am reposting it here, and on my companion blog, as my Christmas gift to you all - as my thanks for reading throughout the year. There are some differences to the story, so if you’ve read it before you might want to give it another glance to see if you can catch the differences (or to see if I’m just pulling your leg ... [I’m not ... I assure you ... there have been changes]).

The story was inspired by … nothing – this does not relate to any actual person; it was written, however, after seeing the results of an IED explosion which had killed some Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan in 2007. After seeing the footage of the carnage I couldn’t help but think about the families, back here in Canada, and how they have to keep on living when a part of their family has been violently ripped from their lives on the other side of the world. The story’s dedication is at the end of the text.

I hope you enjoy the story. Have a Merry (Belated) Chanukah; a Joyous Christmas, and a Happy, Happy New Year (or don’t, I don’t care … really, I don’t … I’ve got my own issues … really, I do … honest).

Department Store Santa

Every year since he had turned fifty and his long beard had turned white he had worked as the department store Santa in one of the large shopping malls in the centre of town. Hundreds of children would come to sit on his lap every day in the weeks leading up to Christmas, but as the years passed by and he grew older the old man began to feel more than a small amount of resentment towards the ever growing commercialisation of Christmas. As much as he tried to hide those feelings of bitterness behind his bushy beard and smiling eyes they ultimately filtered down towards the children and their parents. Playing Santa used to be fun, now it was only a job. At the end of every day sitting on his “throne” it took every bit of restraint that he had to not rip the Santa suit off and just quit altogether.

Christmas wasn’t what it used to be, he thought to himself with a heavy sigh, as yet another child recited what was turning into yet another list of expensive computer games and electronic devices that they not only wanted but already knew they would be getting for Christmas; it was a familiar scene for Santa, seeing spoiled children who seemed to lack for nothing and for whom Christmas was a payday of sorts, the day they were rewarded for being good little boys and girls. It was even getting to the point, he sadly realized, where he was finding it increasingly difficult to smile for the photographs that his “elf” would take with the children while they sat on his lap; all he wanted to do was leave this shattered Yuletide fantasy of commercialised fraud and seek refuge with his wife, safe in their home where they had created a lifetime of memories of Christmas’ past. Living in the past had become something of an obsession of late, especially now as Christmas approached.

“Today’s your last day,” his wife had said as she gently squeezed his hand, earlier that day as he took a final sip of coffee before shrugging on his heavy winter coat. They had just finished breakfast in their comfortable breakfast nook and he was preparing to leave for work. The words had managed to cheer him up considerably as he left their house near the Canal and walked to the mall with an added bounce in his step. A faint smile crept over his face for the first time in a long while as he approached the employee’s entrance and made his way to the locker room. He kept thinking about the conversation that he and his wife had over breakfast about retiring completely; the more he thought about it the more he liked the idea. He had been able to retire early from his consulting job with the city and had taken on this job as Santa seventeen years ago just for fun, not at all expecting to do it for such a long time. He was certainly not doing it for the money. Of course, if he was perfectly honest with himself, and his wife, he would have admitted that his heart just was not into being around so many people anymore, especially children; not after what had happened to their son Kevin.

As he entered the locker room and put on his Santa suit for the last time this year, and perhaps for good, there was something a little different in his attitude; it seemed as though a weight had been removed, perhaps because the decision to retire was not an abstract anymore, it was coalescing into something he could really see as a distinct possibility. Before he closed the locker door he looked at the handwritten letter that was taped to the inside of his locker. There were only a handful of lines on the page, a total of 169 words if you included the final initial he had signed his name with; all written in haste just before Kevin went out on a mission. Even though he had memorized every word on the page and could recite them forward and backward, he read it once again, his eyes lingering on the swirl and swoops of his son’s neat handwriting.

Yes, he thought, he would definitely retire. After everything that had happened to their family this year there was no reason for him to have to put up with this crap anymore. Why should he? He had worked his entire adult life and had earned his retirement; why shouldn’t he take advantage of that time now and enjoy his winter months without having to pretend to be Santa Claus, the symbol of everything he hated about the commercialization of Christmas. Yes, this day would be different, he thought to himself; it would be the last day that he would ever have to wear this pathetic costume, and sit on a stupid throne while wisecracking teens laugh at him all day. Santa suits, he thought as he walked towards his “Kingdom” for the last time, should come with pockets so you could conceal water guns and other projectile toys.

Throughout the day and a stream of endless, anonymous children, all seeming to want the same mp3 playing robot that could do all kinds of cool, inane things … (he really was getting too old for this, he thought to himself, not for the first time this season), he still managed to keep smiling, reminding himself of the Christmas Eve dinner awaiting him at home that his wife would have been working on all day. He even remembered to laugh at the appropriate places for the children, to smile for the photos, and to give each of the little urchins one of the obligatory candy canes for having had the pleasure of screaming in his ear (it was no wonder he was nearly deaf in his left ear). Since this was Christmas Eve it was busier than usual in the mall, with last-minute shoppers desperate to find that elusive, perfect gift, which was no doubt made in China. This did not prevent the old man from letting his mind wander to what his wife would be doing at home.

His wife came from a family that celebrated Christmas, and Christmas Eve with what could only be described as uncommon gusto; the family was not particularly religious, but they were extremely enthusiastic. When it came to the Christmas Eve meal no expenses were spared: they usually made a roasted ham, a turkey with all the trimmings, potatoes of several varieties, salads enough to sink a ship and more than enough side dishes to feed dozens of people. It was a feast worthy of royalty, and it was a tradition that the family tried to continue, as much as possible.

Unlike other Christmas Eve dinners, this would be a meal only for the two of them; Kevin, their only son had been killed earlier in the year while serving with his unit in Afghanistan, but knowing his wife there would be more than enough food to feed a small army; or at least their son’s unit. This would be their first Christmas without him, without their Kevin, he thought to himself with a note of sadness as the last of the children was admitted through the gates to see Santa; his assistant pointed to the “closed” sign, signalling to him that the gates to “Santa’s Kingdom” were now locked for the season. Thank God, he thought to himself. The words of the letter crept into his mind and he heard them in the voice of his son Kevin, as though he was reading them instead of writing them from so far away.
“Hi Dad, I don’t have too much time to write; the unit’s deploying this afternoon and I only have time to wish you a Happy Birthday before our column leaves the base. Things have been boring as hell - sorry - heck lately. We had a scare the other night when a unit came under heavy fire after an IED blew up the lead vehicle in their column. Fortunately, nobody was killed - they were in a Buffalo - a great beast of a machine. I know telling you and Mom not to worry isn’t worth my time, but - don’t worry. Everybody here has each other’s back - we’re as safe as we can be. Hope Mom treats you well on your birthday! All my Love, Kevin. P.S. My orders came in yesterday! I’m scheduled to ship out in 10 weeks. I’ll be home in time to see you in your Santa suit for the first time. Baring any changes, I should be back in Petawawa by the third of September. Love you, K.”
The words echoed in his mind as the final child approached him. “Baring any changes ...” oh, but there had been changes, hadn’t there? The column of armoured vehicles had left their forward operating base at 0500h and entered a mountain pass, to rendez-vous with a group of Afghani tribal representatives, but it had all been too easy. As they left the meeting site they came upon a bottleneck in the road and encountered an ambush: several insurgents with armed with both heavy machine guns and the dreaded Rocket Propelled Grenade, a holdover from Afghanistan’s war with the Soviet Union decades before. The first RPG hit the vehicle in front of Kevin’s, but even before he was able to leave his vehicle - not the much lauded Buffalo in this case - a second RPG turned his Light Armoured Reconnaissance Vehicle into a pressure cooker, killing all five of the soldiers inside instantly with the overpressure caused by the exploding grenade. Nine had died that day, the day the letter had been sent. Nine sons that would never see another Christmas, one of whom was his own precious Kevin.
As the boy approached there seemed to be something odd about him that immediately caught the old man’s attention. He was only about seven years old, but there was something about his eyes made him look much older, far more mature than his years. When he was close enough to speak, he said, in no uncertain terms, “look: we both know that I’m too old for this, right? I’m only here for my mother — it’s been a rough year for …” but he couldn’t continue as a tear began to roll down his freckled cheek.

 “Come here, my boy,” the old man said, his voice kinder and gentler than it had been since the Chaplain had arrived with the news of his own son’s death, four months before. “What is it that you want for Christmas?”

The boy looked up at the old man and, seeing his own grief reflected back in his eyes, replied, “I want my father to come home from Afghanistan so we can be a real family again, but he already came back,” his voice cracked, “… in a coffin.” The boy buried his face in the deep plush of the Santa costume and he cried for several minutes while his mother came to get him, visibly embarrassed by the situation. But the old man didn’t mind the tears, for they were his as well, and those of his wife. They were tears that seemed to flow unceasingly, from eyes that saw ghosts in every corner of their house; they were tears that never seemed to run out, that never seemed to lose their sting.

When the boy stopped crying and his mother introduced herself to the old man he took her offered hand and asked, his voice thick with emotion, “would you and your lovely son do my wife and I the honour of joining us for dinner this evening? You see,” he continued, gently squeezing her hand, “this will be our first Christmas without our son as well. He was also killed in Afghanistan this past September,” these final words were barely whispered, but the mother and son had no difficulty hearing him speak.

All she could do was nod her head and do her best to smile, something she had not done very much of since the Chaplain had arrived at their house two months ago. As the three of them left the mall the old man was still dressed in his Santa Claus suit and for the first time in a long, long time he was feeling every bit the part. He wasn’t worried about leaving things in his locker at the mall, he knew he’d be back there at the beginning of the next Christmas Season, to once again sit on his throne amidst the magic kingdom of Santa Claus. After all, he thought to himself as he walked along the Canal with his new found friends, the spirit of Christmas was about finding love even if that was accompanied by a little bit of pain.

Dedicated to the Canadian Servicemen and women who have lost their lives in Afghanistan, and all other Peace Keeping Missions, and to their families; Merry Christmas. Peter Amsel, Ottawa.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

The Legacy of a Civil Rights Hero

You have heard the name, but do you know the story of Rosa Parks and the role she played in the Civil Rights Movement? What happened in Montgomery in 1955 was far more important than anyone imagined when the events were unfolding at the time. Rosa Louise McCauley did not begin her life dreaming of becoming the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement”, she was born in Tuskegee, Alabama, the granddaughter of former slaves and the daughter of a carpenter and rural schoolteacher. Rosa moved to Montgomery, Alabama, and attended Alabama State College, an all-black school. It was there, in 1932, that she married Raymond Parks, who worked as a barber. It was at this time that Rosa also became active in Montgomery’s chapter of the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People.

Her work with the NAACP was more than just passive membership; when she joined the organization in 1943 she worked with the state president, Edgar Daniel Nixon in mobilizing a voter registration drive in Montgomery. Rosa Parks was also elected Secretary of the Montgomery branch of the NAACP in 1943. There should be no doubt that the heart of a true activist beat within the chest of this future Civil Rights leader, even years before the most significant act of her career would take place; an act that was born out of a desire for nothing more than fairness.

In the 1950s Rosa Parks began working as a tailor’s assistant in a department store, Montgomery Fair, she also worked part-time for a white liberal couple who encouraged Parks in her Civil Rights work. Six months before the arrest that would change the history of the Civil Rights movement Rosa received a scholarship to attend a workshop on school integration held at the Highlander folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee. The workshop was aimed at community leaders, and Rosa Parks spent several weeks there.

In the segregated South public transportation allowed for anyone to use the service, but it was anything but “public” in the sense that if you were a “coloured” person you had to surrender your seat to a white person, and move to the back of the bus. African Americans were required to pay to ride the bus at the front of the bus and then re-board through the back door, they were not even good enough to take a seat through the front of the bus: that is how they were perceived at the time. The first ten seats on the buses in Montgomery were permanently reserved for the white passengers, and when the bus become crowded the drivers would instruct any black passengers to make room for white passengers. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to move.

The ramifications of this action shook Montgomery to its core, changed America, and began an action that was watched by the world. It also launched the career of another Civil Rights activist, someone who would galvanise the movement, and transform it in ways no one could have foreseen before Rosa Parks’s actions that day.

After the arrest of Rosa Parks she was released on a $100 bond that was posted by her employers, the Durrs, and the president of the NAACP, Edgar Nixon. Rosa decided to allow the NAACP to take on the case and another organisation, the Women’s Political Council, which was led by JoAnn Robinson, came up with the idea of having a one day bus boycott coinciding with the date of Park’s trial. The WPC printed and distributed more than 52,000 fliers spreading the word about the boycott, on December 5, the day Rosa Parks would stand trial.

On that day the buses went through Montgomery almost empty and Rosa Parks was convicted by the local court and fined $14. With the assistance of her lawyer, Ed Gray, she immediately filed an appeal to the circuit court. While her appeal languished in red-tape, the U.S. District court was dealing with another case having to do with racial segregation and public buses, ruling that it was unconstitutional. That case, Browder v. Gayle, was ruled upon on June 4, 1956, by a three-judge panel that included Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr. The decision was upheld by the United States Supreme Court in November 1956. Rosa Parks never paid her fine.

On the day of the boycott, December 5, 1955, there was a new minister in the town of Montgomery named Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. He became the president of the boycott committee, urging the residents of Montgomery to stay off the buses, fighting for justice by opposing those who denied them the same. The boycott ultimately lasted 381 days and propelled King into the spotlight of national prominence as a Civil Rights leader whose voice could not be ignored. The Montgomery bus Boycott remains as one of the seminal Civil Rights actions, a marking post in the history of the movement, and it all began with the actions of one woman named Rosa.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Paestinian Shame

There are many times where the term “wrong side of history” is used, but it is still a valid term, it is not an overused term, particularly when it comes to important events in history. A recent event that qualifies to have the term applied to it is the vote that took place in the United Nations to grant the embattled Palestinian Authority the status of “non-member observer state” in the United Nations. This would not give them the full status of a “member nation” like the United States, or Canada, but it would allow them to join other UN agencies, and more importantly, eventually bring cases to the International Criminal Court.

The vote in the United Nations took place sixty-five years after the historic partition of the British ruled territory that became Israel, but which was also supposed to become an Arab controlled nation; the nation of Palestine. The treaty has been broken from the first, and it is time for Palestine to be born. One hundred and thirty-eight nations decided that giving Palestine the stylus of a “non-member observer state” was the least that they could do at this time, while perhaps being a token, it was also the right thing; they recognised that the Palestinian people have been living under an apartheid rule, living under the threat of Israeli aggression at the slightest provocation. Guns answering rocks, bombs being dropped on unarmed civilians, and refugees languishing in camps for generations hardly seems like the fair observation of a treaty.

Instead of having the ambassador to the United Nations from Canada speak, the Foreign Minister himself, John Baird, decided to take it upon himself to travel to New York and personally address the UN on this matter. Rather than supporting the idea that Palestine deserved to have a greater voice in the international community, Canada’s Foreign Minister chose to be a vocal opponent to the vote. Canada's Foreign Minister chose to stand on the wrong side of history.
“This resolution will not advance the cause of peace or spur a return to negotiations. Will the Palestinian people be better off as a result? No, on the contrary, this unilateral step will harden positions and raised unrealistic expectations.” (Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird; Delivered at the UN, Thursday, Nov. 30, 2012)

If by “unrealistic expectations” Mr Baird is referring to the idea that the Palestinians might call on the international criminal court at some point, perhaps he is correct; the ICC tends to be slow to judgement, but that is no reason to deny the Palestinians admission to the United Nations, even if it is not a full member status. The fact that Canada, particularly under the leadership of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has reiterated its staunch support of Israel and its policies regarding the Palestinians does not mean that the government must deny the Palestinian people representation in the United Nations. In fact, equality for the Palestinians would benefit both them and the Israelis. People who are equal, people who have the dignity of knowing that neither is being discriminated against, are less likely to take up irrational, violent acts, in order to make the point that could better be made politically.

How many violent acts have the Irish Republican Army committed since the issues in Ireland were dealt with politically? If you ignore the problems they do not go away on their own; they will not go away unless they are dealt with one way or the other. Some people believe that they can be dealt with through violence, something many people abhor, but it is used nonetheless. If Palestine were recognised as a state, and the rights of the people were recognised and respected, is it not conceivable that many of the problems being experienced in that part of the world would no longer be an issue? What are the causes of the problems today? People building houses, settlements, on land that is supposed to belong to the Palestinians; unlawful arrests and attainments; blockades of medicine; people being prevented to go to work because they cannot cross checkpoints; and other things that degrade and humiliate the population living within the Palestinian Authority.

Human dignity is being denied these people, and nine nations voted against giving them “non-member observer state” status in the United Nations. Those nine nations are on the wrong side of history. Canada, the United States, Israel, Panama, Palau, the Marshal Islands, Nauru, the Czech Republic, and Micronesia: these nine nations are not only on the wrong side of history, they are cowardly, insensitive, and ignorant of the historic importance of this vote.

Forty-one nations decided not to vote for, or against the proposal to upgrade the Palestinian status. The motive for the abstention is curious, but neither here nor there: these nations chose to ignore the opportunity to grant another nation more rights. For some of the nations this might not seem like a difficult choice, especially when you consider a nation like Romania, or Albania, both of which have histories where suppressing their citizens is not uncommon. However, the United Kingdom also abstained, as did the Netherlands, which is quite confounding when you consider that both nations received tremendous damage during the Second World War, and are intimately familiar with the suffering associated with persecution. One would have thought that this knowledge would have made them more sensitive, more empathetic to the cause of the Palestinians.
In the words of Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority:

“We did not come here seeking to delegitimatize a state established years ago, and that is Israel; rather we came to affirm the legitimacy of the state that must now achieve its independence, and that is Palestine. We did not come here to add further complications to the peace process, which Israel’s policies have thrown into the intensive care unit; rather we came to launch a final serious attempt to achieve peace. Our endeavour is not aimed at terminating what remains of the negotiations process, which has lost its objective and credibility, but rather aimed at trying to breathe new life into the negotiations and at setting a solid foundation for it based on the terms of reference of the relevant international resolutions in order for the negotiations to succeed.

“Every voice supporting our endeavour today is a most valuable voice of courage, and every state that grants support today to Palestine’s request for non-member observer state status is affirming its principled and moral support for freedom and the rights of peoples and international law and peace.” (Delivered at the UN, Thursday, Nov. 30, 2012)
In light of these words, and the recent peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, it only seems fair that diplomacy should be given the chance that it deserves, rather than pushing a military agenda against a mostly un-armed civilian population. The reply to the words by President Abbas was nothing less than scathing, dripping with hatred and menace, and they came from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu:
“The world watched a defamatory and venomous speech that was full of mendacious propaganda against the IDF and the citizens of Israel. Someone who wants peace does not talk in such a manner. ... The way to peace between Jerusalem and Ramallah is in direct negotiations, with out preconditions, and not in one sided UN decisions. By going to the UN, the Palestinians have violated the agreements with Israel, and Israel will act accordingly.” (Delivered at the UN, Thursday, Nov. 30, 2012)
One must ask, what does the Prime Minister mean by “acting accordingly”? After all, this was an act of peace, not an act of aggression; no one was killed, no missiles were launched, and no bombs were exploded. The United Nations is a diplomatic body, it is where peace is negotiated, it is where people go to negotiate treaties, it is where people go to have “peace talks” with their neighbours, and other nations. For the Prime Minister of Israel to assert that seeking “non-member observer state status” is some sort of precondition to the way the Palestinians will be addressing Israel in future negotiations is, in a word, delusional. One might want to remind Mr Netanyahu that even should the Palestinians become signatories of the Rome Statute, and therefore the International Criminal Court, Israel is not a signatory of the statute and does not fall under the ICC’s jurisdiction.

Perhaps Prime Minister Netanyahu is feeling a pang of conscience knowing that charges could well be brought against Israel in the ICC, but unless Israel decides to sign the Rome Statute, there is nothing to fear, just as the Goldstone Report had no binding powers against Israel when it indicated that war crimes had been committed against the Palestinian people during Operation Cast Lead in 2009.

Advancing the rights of Palestinians has nothing to do with religion, nor does it have anything to do with whether or not you support Israel as a nation. Israel will continue to exist, just as Palestine has a right to exist as well. This vote by 138 nations is an acknowledgement that a majority of the members of the United Nations agree that the status of Palestine should be increased. It is a recognition that the fact that there is something wrong in the “Holy Land” is obvious; the only question that remains is which side of history will you be on when the final lines are drawn.