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.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Taking Violence out of the Fight for Israel

Is it possible to support the Palestinian cause without supporting, or calling for violence? Yes, but it is difficult. However, it is also the only way to get things accomplished in a country where the land is seen as something that God specifically gave to one of the people living there, not the others. It also takes great patience, endurance, and something that demonstrates that we are better than those perpetuating violence against those who are being oppressed, just as those who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. supported the long march rather than the quick solution seemingly offered by riots and violence. King recognized that violence would only result in more hardship for black people across the United States; it would not advance their civil rights, it would diminish them, causing them to take a step back rather than a leap forward.

Supporting  peaceful solutions is sometimes seen in today’s paradigm of instant gratification as being impractical – it does not bear fruit quickly enough in the minds of some who would rather see the oppressors simply be overthrown with violent swiftness; but, in the case of Israel that is both impractical and, in psychological terms, something akin to magical thinking. The problems in Israel, in Palestine if you will, are being compounded by violence: they will not be, cannot be, solved by them. When we trick ourselves into believing that the solutions to our problems are to be found on the other end of a bullet, or a bomb, or a guided missile, it is time to step back and reassess the situation before we are further led down the garden path of deception.

Violence, as seen on the level that is currently taking place in Israel, and which Israel may respond with, cannot resolve any of the issues facing the Palestinians as a people. Threatening to send in a ground force of 75,000 troops, on the other hand, is not a way to find a handful of terrorists that aerial bombings have been unable to stop. How does the Israeli army expect to stop these attacks? Will they go door-to-door like the Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq, clearing out the insurgents? If they do the one thing that can be counted on is that there will be a massive amount of civilian casualties, and it will all be justified because rockets were fired into Israel.

People will always be divided about the Palestinian cause so long as there is ammunition for the Israelis to use as propaganda against them – that ammunition comes through the use of violence against the oppressive regime they are trying to defeat. But there is one question that deserves being explored for it reveals a great deal that may not be understood about this situation and the way it is perceived in the west, particularly in the United States (and similarly in Canada): Why does Israel maintain the support of so many in the west when there is so much evidence against them in the way they have treated the Palestinians?

The answer is quite simple, as we see with the present situation in Gaza: it is not because they break out the videos of violence perpetrated by blood-thirsty Palestinian terrorists, self-described as ‘freedom-fighters’ (that’s what they always call themselves, regardless of their cause), and they have their rationale for every retaliatory action, including the amassing of seventy-five thousand troops on the border of Gaza, in search of a handful of Hamas rocket installations that Israel has not been able to eliminate through aerial bombardment. That’s more than a subtle response to the rocket attacks and anyone who happens to be crazy enough to approach the armed juggernaut the Israeli Defense Forces represents. The reason that Israel receives such support from the west goes back several thousand years can be summed up with the term “Christo-Zionism” which is a conjunction of “Christian” and Zionism.

When exploring the issue of Israel and American politics it is impossible to not notice how important that tiny country seems to be compared to the United States, a much larger nation in every respect. The recent presidential election was a very easy way to demonstrate just how important the “Jewish vote” is to both political parties, even though it does not represent a large number of votes; both the Republicans and the Democrats spent a tremendous amount of time courting the Jewish vote even though Jews make up a very small part of the population. Yes, there are many wealthy individuals who happen to be Jewish, so there were was much money do be had, and as a demographic it is a very influential group of people, but, regardless of that, they still have only one vote per person.

The real reason that politicians in the United States are so interested in preserving their relationship with Israel, and have sought such close ties with the nation since 1948, is because of the misguided notion that Israel represents the prophetic fulfilment of the New Testament’s Book of Revelation. There is an idea that Zionism is something that the Bible meant to be, when in fact it is a new ideology ... new in the sense that it emerged at the end of the 19th century and had nothing to do with the Bible. Zionism is a construct that ignores the historical facts regarding the background of Israel. It ignores the facts that are recorded in the books that Jews revere as being Holy and inviolable, but that does not bother Zionists – like all good fundamentalists the facts are irrelevant – they just don’t matter.

It became fashionable for Christians to begin adopting the Zionist ideals when the state of Israel was established in 1948, believing that this heralded the beginning of the End Times. It became part of what was known in theological circles as a teaching called “millennialism” and quickly became associated with teachings about the Rapture of the Church which would occur, according to some teachers, after the Great Tribulation. Christo-Zionists became really excited when Jerusalem was captured after the 6 Day War in 1967, believing that this was truly the final piece in the puzzle, completing the fulfilment of the new Israel, spoken of in the Book of Revelation. The clock was ticking ... the Rapture was imminent ... the Mayan calendar was winding down and they didn’t even realize it existed. They were mistaken.

Israel exists as a nation that has more than one population: a population that existed before the Jews arrived, a population that was there long before the nation was established in 1948, and long before they arrived for the first time, when they were led by Moses and Joshua. When Joshua lead them to the “promised land” the people were given an opportunity to take possession of the land, without sharing it with anyone, as was decreed by the Lord. However, the people were disobedient. In essence, God gave the people permission to commit genocide, to eradicate the people living on the land that he had promised them, but they refused. Instead of killing, they made a contract to share the land. I’m not making this up, you can find the entire account of this in the ninth chapter of the book of Joshua. At the end of the chapter the people with whom this “treaty” was made are, in essence, turned into Temple servants – a fancy word for a slave. At that time it seemed preferable to survive as a slave than to face genocide at the hands of an army that carried the Ark of the Covenant.

The ramifications of that contract continue to this day: you do not get a “do over” to commit the genocide that you failed to commit a few millennia ago, it just doesn’t work that way; and no, it does not matter that you were tricked into making the contract. That, as the saying goes, is your problem. We don’t commit genocide in order to have more “breathing room” ... or don’t you remember when that was done a few generations ago? Don’t you remember when your home is were taken out from under you, your land was stolen, your families were hauled off without due process, their property stolen, never to be seen again. Lives destroyed all because somebody had decided they were sub-human? It is astounding that the people who grew up hearing the stories of the Holocaust would not be willing to learn its lessons and reach out to the people living on the land that they call their own. Yes, the land was promised to the Jews by God (or by Moses, depending on your point of view); but there were strings attached to that promise and that is something that has to be lived with; it is something that has to be recognised, and that is something that is being ignored when ever the Palestinians are oppressed by the present Israeli government.

Of course, it takes two to tango and what is going on right now in Israel is not the result of one hand clapping. There are two parties to blame in this craziness, but one of them can choose to stop it: one group is overreacting and another group is actively antagonising, making things worse for both themselves and for the Palestinians in general. When has violence ever solved a problem that should have been addressed politically, through diplomatic channels? We may argue that there have been justifiable wars: wars against despots and against fascism, but random violence has never solved anything, especially when it is aimed at innocent civilians. In fact, unless you manage to utterly destroy your opponent with an overwhelming first strike, the likelihood is that you are only going to make your enemy more intent on eliminating you than they were before: an attack begets a response, the response begets another attack, and so on, until everyone is dead or dying. Unfortunately, this increases the likelihood that they will retaliate against the population in general, with innocent lives being lost, women and children, for what causes? There are many causes in the world, but are they worth the death of children, are they worth the loss of future generations? Consider this: if you and your children die for your cause, who is left to enjoy what you may have gained through your sacrifices? Nobody.

The point is, Israel has a far superior military and will have no problem destroying anything in its path, including the civilian population of Gaza if it so chooses. The rocket attacks that have been occurring of late have been coming from a small number of terrorists backed by Hamas, not by the citizens of Gaza (I am unapologetic about referring to those launching the rockets as terrorists: they cannot represent the best interests of the Palestinian people so long as their principal tool is violence). There is no reason for Israel to send in 75,000 troops to find a handful of terrorists. Please, do not get me wrong, I do not condone the actions of Hamas at all: I abhor violence on any level, especially unprovoked violence that is designed to provoke more violence and strike out at innocent civilians, which is precisely what these rocket attacks are designed to do: Hamas has to know that by supporting these attacks they are only adding to the suffering of the population they claim to love. It only demonstrates that fundamentalists are fundamentally warped and utterly illogical in their approach to conflict resolution. Adherents of fundamentalism are always, at their core, mentally unbalanced.

The question remains: how might it be possible for the Palestinians to resort to non-violent protest? How can they hope to stand against the policies of the Israeli government without appearing provocative? If they refused to take up arms against their oppressor would the world see the truth about how Israel had been treating them, about how Israel had been violating the treaties that it had signed with them? Would it change the way the United States supported Israel? There have been many examples of the brutality and even war crimes committed by Israel, as evidenced and documented in the Goldstone Report, but this “evidence” ends up falling on deaf ears for the simple reason that the United States government at the United Nations, and Christo-Zionists in general will not allow for any sort of criticism of Israel to stand. If you try to criticise Israel the Christo-Zionists will accuse you of being an anti-Semite, or say you are anti-Semitic.

This is not only patently ridiculous, it makes it impossible to pursue any sort of dialogue that advances the issues of the Palestinians. There is a great difference between criticism and anti-Semitism. Consider this: can you criticise the government of the United States and still love the country? Can you “disagree with the congress”, but still call yourself a patriot? Of course you can; many people would expect you to do so, it’s part of life. Or, on the other hand, can you be a proud American even if the man living in the White House is not someone you voted for? If you live long enough there are probably going to be several presidents that you do not necessarily adore, but that would not stop you, or it certainly should not stop you, from being a “proud” American. Your identity should not rely on the identity of one single politician.

As someone who was born to Jewish parents, who grew up learning about the rich tradition of “my people” there are many things that resonate when certain things are heard, but “Promised Land” and “Israel” are not synonymous for the simple reason that the illusion was not reinforced by the fictions that so many blindly accept. At the same time, the idea of “Palestine” and neighbours living together in peace was something that seemed so natural, it surprised me tremendously that this was not a common idea as I grew older, especially when the lessons of history became more evident. Criticising the government of a nation does not mean you hate the people of that country, it means you disagree with the way that country is being run: disagreeing with the government of Israel, with the policies of the Zionists, does not make you anti-Semitic, it makes you anti-genocidal. That is not racist, it is humane.

What is the likelihood of an Israeli politician having any desire of sitting down and discussing the concept of peace with the Palestinians if there are rockets being launched from Gaza? I would hazard that it would be far more likely that they would not want to talk, simply because they would feel that they are in a de facto state of war. However, if one side stops using violence, if they lay down their arms, how might that impress the others? What sort of message would that send to the rest of the world? Of course, people will ask “why should the Palestinians stop using violence first, the Israelis started this?” Or “why don’t the Israelis lay down their arms?” All good questions, but it does not matter. What matters is that violence must come to an end.
Did Israel start this? Did Hamas start this? Did Palestinians start this? Does it matter? People have died; people are dying: it’s time to stop the madness and put an end to the violence that has been plaguing the region for far too long.

Israel should not invade Gaza, and, as a gesture of good faith they should withdraw their troops and stand down their alert status. The terrorists in Gaza, the “freedom fighters”, must cease firing there are rockets at Israel immediately. Reciprocity does not accomplish anything when it comes to violence, that must be understood more than anything else or nothing will ever be accomplished. Israel must also be prepared to honour the agreement is that it has made with the Palestinians, especially those relating to the settlements.

Peace is possible, moreover it is essential: without it we cannot live.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Open Goldberg Variations: Recording Review

What do you get when you combine an award winning pianist, one of the best pianos available, situated in one of the finest recording spaces, and one of the most important works composed for the keyboard, regardless of which instrument happens to be indicated? Well, the answer is quite complex, but the short answer is The Open Goldberg Variations, as performed by Kimiko Ishizaka. The Goldberg Variations is the kind of piece that any serious lover of music by Johann Sebastian Bach takes notice of whenever a new recording is released, if only for the perverse desire to make the inevitable comparisons with their favourite recordings that are inevitably found in one’s library. That said, The Open Goldberg Variations adds a new twist by virtue of the fact that Ms Ishizaka has chosen to release her recording as either a high quality Mp3 or Flac file, available to download for free online. Yes, you read correctly; this recording is free: a full length performance of the Goldberg Variations, including all of the repeats, for free ... and believe me, this is one recording that you cannot afford to miss. You can also listen to the piece in its entirety from their SoundCloud posting, from the Open Goldberg page (here), where you can also find the download links to the higher quality files.

As well as making a new recording of the Goldberg Variations, and releasing that to the public under a Public Domain license, The Open Goldberg Project went about creating an entirely new score for people to access, using an online engraving, or notation, program called MuseScore. The new score is quite clean and very easy to read, and if you are interested, MuseScore is free to use, so you may prepare your own musical scores online if you do not have access to another software. You may see the score here.

After the score, the thing that the pianist needs the most is, of course, a piano. The choice of instrument for this project has a great deal to do with the success of the performance for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that the sound reproduction afforded by the instrument is of such a high quality, the listener is drawn into the performance from the opening notes of the Aria. The instrument used in this recording of the Goldberg Variations was supplied by the great Austrian piano builder Bösendorfer. They supplied Ms Ishizaka with an Imperial Grand Model 290SE, which comes with the revolutionary CEUS recording system invented by Wayne Stahnke, who brought the technology to Bösendorfer in 1978. Unfortunately for Mr Stahnke, the technology was never patented and is now more widely known as it appears in the Yamaha Disklavier, but the CEUS system was the first version, and remains the superior form of the technology.

Essentially, CEUS turns a grand piano into a giant reproduction device; it allows a pianist to create an exact duplicate of their performance, without regard for the extraneous sounds that may take place during the performance. So, if a pianist is in the midst of a great performance and somebody sneezes, they do not have to stop and “retake” the movement – the sneeze would not register with the CEUS equipment, only the music is picked up by the instrument. This performance of the Goldberg Variations was recorded using the Bösendorfer’s ability to faithfully reproduce every nuance of the performance that Ms Ishizaka set down, and there were plenty of nuances to capture.

From the opening of the Aria it is obvious that this is going to be a special recording; the tempo is just right: not too slow and not too fast. So many pianists have a tendency to want to milk the emotional content of this Aria, but they fail by making their performances overly sentimental, sounding as though it was composed in the 19th century rather than the Baroque period. Ms Ishizaka, on the other hand, takes the listener by the hand and, without giving in to mawkishness, makes us genuinely anticipatory of the impending 30 variations.

When you listen to Kimiko Ishizaka play the Goldberg Variations it is very easy to begin making comparisons to such luminous performances as those given by Glenn Gould for the way she isolates individual voices within each variation and alters her articulation in order to bring out specific voicings among the parts. This is something that many pianists do not do, but for Gould was famous. Ms Ishizaka brings out individual voices throughout the variations with a deft mastery that speaks of her tremendous technical prowess.

One of the wonderful things about the Goldberg Variations is the progression of the work itself, the way in which Bach organized his piece using different compositional techniques from one variation to another, leading invariably to the “canons” that occur every third variation. Bach begins with a canon at the unison, then a canon at the second, and ultimately ends with a canon at the ninth before winding up the piece. The technical challenges for the pianist playing these particular variations are numerous, but you would never know that there was anything difficult about the piece for the way Ms Ishizaka performed the piece: her performance has a sense of ease to it that gives the impression that she could perform like this all day, without having any fatigue.

The final variation of the piece, before the restatement of the Aria, is a Quodlibet, which is a piece of music that is made up of several melodies, in counterpoint. For many this is the highlight of the composition, and Ms Ishizaka did a magnificent job leading the listener to a point where this variation fit in perfectly. Her choices of tempo throughout the work never seemed inappropriate and the execution of ornaments on the repeats was also quite refreshing. Unfortunately, some players simply play the repeats in Baroque music, losing an opportunity to make something out of the repeat, which is exactly what Ms Ishizaka did in this brilliant recording. Every repeat was seen as an opportunity to express another element of her overall vision of the piece, and it is a very well thought out vision, indeed.

The only negative thing that might be said of the recording would be of the SoundCloud posting – and I stress – I have not listened to the higher quality download so I cannot state whether or not this applies to the fully mastered album (having posted lower quality files online and to SoundCloud myself, I would expect no) is that at the end of the 27th variation – track no. 28 – there is a bit of a glitch where the audio does not go to the very end of the track but instead jumps to the next track. It is a very minor thing, but – when you consider the quality of the rest of this album, any blemish is noticeable.

On the whole, Kimiko Ishizaka has produced an exemplary performance of an iconic piece and, by making it a Public Domain project, she may well have created a truly definitive recording for the masses – a recording that will satisfy the most discriminating listener, even those who are willing – and able – to purchase the expensive alternatives from record stores or from online. Angela Hewitt has always impressed me for her ability to make Bach’s music come alive; after listening to this recording of the Goldberg Variations by Kimiko Ishizaka it is very easy to see that there is going to be another album added next to Angela Hewitt ... and Glenn Gould. Ms Ishizaka is in very good company indeed.

Peter Amsel is an Ottawa based Composer and Writer

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Getting Inked

“What’s the difference between someone with a tattoo and someone without one? The person with a tattoo doesn’t care if you don’t have one.”
There are many taboos surrounding the mysterious art of tattoos, even though traditional tattooing has been an integral part of many of the indigenous cultures of the world since before the beginning of recorded history. Tattoos were used numerous things, among them the depiction of the passage into adulthood, among other things, and to show that a man had become a warrior in their tribe. They also showed that someone was willing to sit through the pain of having the ink applied ... something that many people believe is an unendurable prospect and, for that reason alone, they forswear the idea of ever going into a tattoo parlour themselves and “getting inked”.

The truth of the matter, however, is that getting a tattoo need not be seen as a negative or anti-social act; tattoos can be a wonderful way for people to express something of themselves in an artistic way that could not be said with words. Or, it may just be a pretty butterfly on the back of someone’s shoulder. Either way, a tattoo does not necessarily mean that the person bearing it has joined some extreme biker gang, or has just finished a five-year term in some penitentiary. Let’s face the fact, tattoos have entered the mainstream: they are not only part of the “counter culture”, they have been widely accepted into the mainstream of society in such a way that you now see everyone from Pastors to Pilots, and Actors to Zoologists sporting ink ... and also Composers.

Throughout my life I have rarely considered myself a member of the “counter culture” in any respect. As a composer of contemporary art music the culture that I’ve mostly been associated with is, in many respects counter, but not the type of “counter” that is referred to by those who speak of when “counter culture” is spoken of ... but that’s fine, being out of step with the mainstream has never bothered me either; if it did, I probably would have never become a composer. What made me interested in joining the millions of inked individuals out there was not joining a club or anything like that, however, it was about expressing an idea that I’d been thinking about for almost five years. Yes, you read correctly: I had been thinking about the design of this tattoo ... my first tattoo ... for around five years.

Why? Why would anyone spend that much time thinking about a tattoo?

There are a number of reasons for the amount of time that went into the planning of this project, not the least of which was the vacillation between whether or not I really wanted to get it as a tattoo at all. When the design was settled upon the idea could have also been made into something that could have been put onto a t-shirt ... or a hat ... but, my mind kept going back to the original idea of the tattoo, and that’s where it ended. At first I was afraid of the idea of getting inked; not just of the idea of the pain, but of the whole “scene” ... the idea of walking into a tattoo parlour scared me. The people working in the parlours scared me. They were so ... different than me. Well, that line of thinking didn’t last very long.

First of all, I realized that I was judging people – people whom I’d never met – based on what they had on their skin ... while I was considering getting the same thing for myself! Hypocrite! It was like being a racist – and the realization hurt, physically. While I continued to work on my design I began to consciously walk past tattoo parlours whenever I was out and I went into several to talk to them about their procedures, prices, and other things. Everyone was nice and polite – it proved that my prejudices had been completely unfounded (as all prejudices are).

Getting over the people did not get me over the issue of the pain, and that was definitely something that I was unsure about, and there was one other element that the people at the parlours I’d visited could not answer: would there be any complications for a person with type II Diabetes getting a tattoo? There are risks for people with type I Diabetes (people who take Insulin), but I have the other type – my diabetes is controlled by pills and diet, and the last blood tests I had showed that the control of the disease was in the “non-diabetic” range (in other words, it is very well controlled). So, I spoke to my family doctor about getting the tattoo and she said there shouldn’t be any issues, so long as the needles were new (they would be) and everything was sterile (it would be).

I am always in pain. I’ve had the same migraine for over thirty years (that’s not an exaggeration, it’s a fact) and I have fibromyalgia. A small part of me was thinking that the pain of the tattoo would actually be a refreshing change from the pain that I’m always experiencing. Yes, that’s wishful thinking, but ... well, when you’re in constant pain, you’re allowed the occasional day dream. When the day finally arrived for me to arrive at The Ink Spot, on Bank Street (address at the end of the article), I was fully prepared to be put through agony ... to have my arm turned into a flaming piece of bleeding flesh, all for the joy of having a personalized piece of art that nobody else in the world would have on their body. Instead of that expected pain ... well, I won’t say it didn’t hurt at all because it did, but, when compared to the worst days of my migraine, or a bad day with the fibromyalgia – I’d take the tattoo any day of the week. It was, in all seriousness, never any worse than getting pinched.


The idea that I had for my first tattoo (yes, there will be more ...) began with a pen. Before I began using my laptop to compose, writing music directly into a notation program called Finale, everything that I wrote was done with a fountain pen. There’s something special about the way a fountain pen lays ink down onto the page, you’re not only able to write with ease, but, depending upon the fineness of the pen’s nib, with great precision. The pen that is depicted in the tattoo was made by Pelikan, a German company. I found this pen in a pawn shop several years ago and it has become one of my favourite pens.

The second element of the tattoo flows from the nib of the pen: the staff of music. On the staff, written in the bass clef (only for the placement of the notes – I actually considered the alto clef) and in 4/2 time (that time signature is chosen so the music will appear correctly in one measure). The music that appears on the staff is divided into two sections: the first four notes represents the first motto theme and the second motto theme picks up with the grouping of sixteenth and eighth notes, under the tied whole note, held over from the end of the first theme.

What are these motto themes? The first one is the most recognizable: B-flat; A; C; B-Natural – or: B; A; C; H. In German nomenclature B-flat is spelled as “B” and B-natural is spelled “H”. This theme was used by Johann Sebastian Bach in his “Art of Fugue”. The second motto theme spells: D; E-flat; C; B-flat – or D; Es; C; H. Again, in the German system of note spelling an E-flat is spelled as an “Es” (or “S”). In this case the theme spells out “DSCH” an abbreviated motto used by Dmitri Shostakovich. Shostakovich used this theme in a number of works, not the least of which being his “Piano Trio” Op. 67.

Without question Bach has been one of the greatest influences on my musical life, perhaps even from before I was born: when she was pregnant with me my mother listened to his “Brandenburg Concerti” and I’m certain that this in vivo listening had an influence on my future desire to pursue a career in music. Another of my great musical influences has to be the man who stood up to Stalin, using a pen and musical notes as his only weapon. The music of Dmitri Shostakovich has always found its way into my heart, and I remember well listening to his seventh symphony, the “Leningrad” on my parent’s console stereo in the living room when I was a child. Hearing the sound of the approaching Nazi army as they approached the city would always make me want to fight with the defenders as the music came to its dramatic climax, repelling the massive attack of the invading hordes.

A blackbird may seem incongruous on a musically themed tattoo, but this bird has more meaning than meets the eye. In 1991 my parents gave me an early graduation present – a two-week trip to Austria. The reason for the trip being a year early was that it coincided with the 200th anniversary of the death of Mozart, and it was an opportunity to attend many concerts in both Vienna and Salzburg, the two cities that Mozart spent most of his life. In preparing for my trip I learned a little bit of German, and one of the things I learned was that my name in German means “Blackbird” which I’d never heard before. Often there had been confusion with my name and the beer “Amstel”, which is a Dutch river, but for the first time I knew that “Amsel” meant something on its own ... and that meaning lead me to something even more exciting, something that connected me to another of my great musical influences.

If you were to ask me who the most important person in my musical life has been there would be absolutely no hesitation with my answer: Maestro Steven Gellman, my mentor, the man with whom I studied composition for four years while at the University of Ottawa for both undergraduate and graduate school. It is an honour that, to this day, I can call both Maestro Gellman and his wife, Cheryl, my friends and when we see each other it’s as though time has been suspended. The thing that must be said about Maestro Gellman is that he studied with one of the most amazing composers of the 20th Century, the incredible French composer and pedagogue, Olivier Messiaen.

Now, that still doesn’t explain the connection with the Blackbird, but the connection will become clear very quickly. Messiaen was renowned for his use of birdsong within his music. One of the birds that he used was “Le merle noir” a chamber piece for solo flute and piano, a combination that I have composed for in the past, and which I’ll be composing for in the future as the flute is one of my favourite instruments to write for. Thus the idea of getting the image of the Blackbird as part of the tattoo not only represented my own name, it reflects a connection with my mentor and HIS mentor as well, but it goes even further than that ... though this may be silly for some, cute for others, it’s just the way it is: I decided to name the bird. His name? Johann; a good German name. Thanks to the placement of the tattoo, which you’ll be able to clearly see in the pictures, Johann is able to see everything that my hands are doing – especially when I’m working on the laptop. So, in a way, I have my mentor, his mentor, and Bach looking over what I’m doing ... strangely enough, the idea of that much scrutiny did not cause any sense of intimidation or anxiety – in fact, when the idea struck me to name the bird, it actually inspired me ... it’s almost as if I’m able to visibly see where some of my inspiration is coming from while I’m working.

The penultimate element of the tattoo is the easiest one to explain: the Maple Leaf. No, I am not a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs ... if I was I’d have gotten the leaf in black – a gesture of perpetual mourning. No, the leaf was chosen just because I identify myself as “a Canadian composer” and the symbol of Canada is the maple leaf. The idea of having the leaf slip under the pen was a last minute idea, and I believe it really brings the piece together, giving it a closed feeling that suits it quite well.

Which brings me to the final element: “Maestoso e Serioso” the text above the music. What could that possibly mean? Well, if you are familiar with music, or Italian, these are not difficult terms, but their meaning is not exactly the way they would be interpreted in the normal musical sense. When a musical score has the indication that something should be played “Maestoso” that simply means that the composer wants the piece to sound “Majestically”, or “in a majestic manner”. “Serioso” means just what it sounds like, “to be played in a serious manner”. But that’s not what it means in the case of the tattoo ... that would be too easy. In this case the word “Maestoso” was chosen because that was how I wanted the excerpt in the tattoo to sound, majestically. It is also how I perceive music, in the “grand scheme” of things, to be – a grand, majestic, wonderful field to be involved in that can be greatly fulfilling. The second part is how I feel about my own work and music in general: Majestic AND Serious. It’s not all fun and games, there’s also a great deal of work and dedication that goes into the creation of music, a tremendous amount of time and effort; there is no such thing as a shortcut in music.

So, from the words on the top to the leaf on the end to the individual notes on the staff, everything on this piece has meaning to me, and I hope you enjoyed reading about that meaning and how the design came to be.

Ultimately, when I’d finally settled on the design elements I began shopping around for a tattoo parlour in which to get my ink applied. I was surprised to find that, in one place, the price was quite a bit higher than in another, though the quality of work of the artists was certainly not of a lesser quality. This was something that I hadn’t counted on when I began this journey, I hadn’t considered how hard it might be to find an artist to do the work. Living in Ottawa made things more difficult than if I lived in Montreal or Toronto where there are many more tattoo parlours, but ... all it really meant was that I had to do more homework. After looking at virtually every parlour’s website, looking through the artist’s portfolios, I found myself walking into a store that I’d walked past at least 1,000 times without seeing, at the corner of Bank and Gladstone in Ottawa: The Ink Spot.
This is Pierre Gwod, one of the fine artists at The Ink Spot. To see samples of his work, click here.

When I entered The Ink Spot I met Pierre and, after discussing the ideas for the design and looking at his book of work I knew that I’d found the place where the job would be done: I paid a $50 deposit for my appointment and, when I got home, sent him the elements of the design by email. The rest, as they say, is history. On Monday, April 16 the arm went under the ink gun ... truth be told, I can’t wait to get the next one.

The stencil, this part doesn't hurt ... well, the rest of it didn't really hurt that much either ... but THIS part ... not a bit!
The beginnings of the tattoo.
Vibrant ... bright ... complete!