I want to start 2020 off with a return to my little story time corner, especially my tales of that childhood prison known as school (I still have not shared the story of my wretched freshman English teacher who was also my first teacher bully). But before we tread back twenty years to high school and beyond, I would like to share a story about my encounter with a couple of men impersonating FBI Special Agents that occurred in 2018.
This strange event took place in Massachusetts on Monday, 20 August after I had spent the weekend in an intensive studio session with other contract musicians for a singer who wanted to make it big by releasing a cover album of Broadway songs. To go off track for one sentence, that record was never released in the end, mostly because she was never satisfied with the work of the musicians or engineers, and she neglected to secure the rights to the songs she was recording. I had gotten home just after 2:00 in the morning, and did not fall asleep until after four. You can now imagine how irritated I was to be awoken at 11:00 by pounding on the door just beneath my temporary bedroom after crashing at my folks’ house for the night.
Two strange men had come up to our house and were asking if they could enter without identifying themselves. As my then 68-year-old mother had answered the door, she had assumed that they were campaigning for the coming midterm elections in the States and told them to go away. It was then that one of the individuals swiftly flashed a badge and said he was an FBI agent. Without knowing what these strangers wanted, she went into a panic, called my father out and did the worst thing possible: they both let these outsiders onto the deck to talk with them without confirming their identity.
As I made my way into the bathroom to brush my teeth, my mum notified me that men from the FBI were there from Miami and that they were asking about two friends of hers in Nassau, Florida. My first reaction was to take out my barely usable phone and call the local police department to confirm these peoples’ authority but both of my parents refused to allow me to do so and snatched at my cell phone to prevent me from making the call. I surveyed the situation and immediately noticed several red flags.
First and foremost, these men identified themselves as “FBI agents so-and-so,” not “Special Agent,” which is the correct title. They claimed to be at our home from the Miami field office in regards to a couple whom we know in Nassau, but Nassau is under the jurisdiction of the Jacksonville FBI field office, not Miami. Their vehicle had South Carolina plates. If the Bureau wanted to talk to two residents of Massachusetts about something in Florida, the Boston branch would have sent agents instead of two men who allegedly had just driven up the entire East Coast. If real Federal Agents from Florida were required to speak to someone in Massachusetts, they would have flown and not driven 2525 kilometres which takes about 23 hours. When I asked to see their badges, only one had a badge and he refused to actually let me see it, choosing to flash it so that I could not get a good look. They claimed to be investigating an anonymous tip that was traced to our address, but that would mean the tip was not anonymous, never mind that nobody in my family had ever made contact with the FBI. They were dressed and smelled like beach bums with dirty golf shirts with stained khaki shorts and sandals with socks.
When they asked to speak with me, I decided to test my hunch that this was a scam. I spoke only in Spanish, figuring that real agents from Miami would be at least semi to professionally fluent in the language given the high population of speakers in that region. Neither of them knew a word of Spanish outside of “Hola” which was a nice bit of gravy on the con-platter so I dialed 911 to ask for a real police officer to arrive and remove these two from my parents’ property.
When the actual police arrived, these two were sweating like a pair of pigs on the killing floor and they refused to show the local authorities the one badge between them. The responding officers were just as skeptical as I was and had the two men escorted to the station for further questioning and took our statement. I do not know what became of these fake FBI agents but impersonating an authority is a serious crime that comes with a minimum of five years in prison on top of hefty fines, so I will just take a guess that they are in a correctional facility for another few years.
The local police concluded that this was a sort of identity theft scam, and that the imposters were trying to gain personal information on our friends in Florida as well as us, and that they had used either the respect or fear of authority to try to swindle people for sensitive data. Because my parents’ neighbourhood is mostly retirees or young couples with very young children, it was a prime target to prey on a vulnerable demographic. This is why the medial alert button phone scam is so prevalent that even I get those calls, and I am in my 30s.
The moral here is to always question who you are talking to. In this day and age, there are a lot of crummy people out there who are willing to take advantage of you and there is no low that they will not sink to for a quick dollar. Just check your phone after work and see how many bogus numbers called you from the same credit card scam based overseas that has been going on for over ten years now. If anyone ever approaches your property claiming to be an authority and you have the even slightest suspicion that something is wrong, call your nation’s emergency number and ask the dispatcher for confirmation. If they are legitimate, they will not mind.
It is time that I address something that has been bothering me for quite some time that I never really figured out how to share, so I hope this post does not go off track too much. I have stated in the past that I struggle with social anxiety disorder (amongst other things) and that I have extremely poor self-esteem and a lot of body image issues. I am not sure exactly when this started, but if I were to guess, I would have to say around the time I was four and in preschool, which is just a rough estimate as I know that is when I started biting my nails out of anxiety. (I finally stopped nail-biting in 2007.)
When I was growing up, I was on a lot of asthma medication that caused my weight to fluctuate dramatically. For instance, when I began the 5th grade I was a tall and skinny kid that even towered over the girls, but after being hospitalized for an asthma attack that year, I had ballooned by 13 kg from prednisone regiments and other steroids used to treat my symptoms. Back then, controller medications were not widely available so the only way I could survive was with a nebulizer treatment in the morning, two puffs of an albuterol rescue inhaler at the nurse’s office before lunch, and another nebulizer treatment before bed. More if there was an emergency.
This put enormous stress on my body, especially on my heart (I have had a heart murmur since birth), and made me even more sickly than I normally was. As a result, I was overweight, greyish in colour and could not participate in many of the activates I was previously involved with at school: I had played the flute in concert band but my asthma forced me to stop. I played basketball but had no choice but to quit as I could not breathe well enough to be competitive. And in a school where you were either “a jock or you were not” as it was said, this made me incredibly isolated and likely contributed to my difficulty handling social situations later on.
I want to say that this got better over time, but the years of bullying and name-calling that I had been subjected to in middle school made everything much worse once I arrived at St. Nard’s for high school. Before classes began, I spent that entire summer obsessively exercising and refusing food so that I could enter a new school with a new look and, in my mind, having little to fear. By the time I was a sophomore, I had developed anorexia and was running on fumes every single day. At most I may have had a cracker and a piece of cheese during the week, and only allowed myself to have part of a meal on weekends.
I had such a hard time making friends in school that I always thought it had something to do with my weight, the way I styled my hair, the tenor pitch of my speaking voice, or more that I was nervously trying to fix all at once, and all at the cost of my health. Adding into this, the car wreck that I was involved in and the subsequent diagnosis of PTSD, my nerves were in ruins and my health was deteriorating rapidly. At the time my senior portrait was taken, I weighed only 62.5 kg while being 1.9 meters tall. I was completely emaciated: my eyes looked bigger than normal as my skull was being exposed and I had no strength left in my body so that I could no longer lift weights or even move the couch.
And this did not stop here. By university, I started eating again but in massive amounts: I would eat junk food all day long, eating ready to bake cookies nightly and had a near daily lunch of Burger King by the time I was in my final college semester. By this point, I had again ballooned up to 95 kg and was a sickly grey in the last jazz ensemble pictures that were taken of me. And adding to my own internal monologue that incessantly berated me for being too fat, or for not being good enough as a musician, an artist, or even as a person, I ended up becoming the butt of every joke by a group of people on YouTube (circa 2008).
I was new to the internet, I had dial-up until 2007-08 and I was not aware of the unmitigated evil that is the YouTube comments section. In several of my videos where I could be seen playing the piano or bass, or just making uploads that today would be classified as vlogs, I was getting trolled by one or two users who escalated their attacks in private messages that came every few minutes in the middle of the night. I was called “tits boy,” “the Rack,” and other names poking fun at my weight. I was told that my voice “sounded like Barney if he was [sic] a queer” and that a turtle with a tampon up its arse would sound better than anything I was performing. The messages included several comments that I should be struck dead.
I was a young 20-something and I was stupid. I had never heard of trolling before so I engaged with these users who destroyed what little was left of my confidence until I deleted my channel and removed all of my pictures from the internet. I have since grown thicker skin, and am happy to say that I could care less for comments directed at me, but unfortunately this has also meant that I seldom take good comments to heart and the dark thoughts of my internal monologue returned, screaming at me that I was not good enough to be a musician, or was not cut out to be an artist or a writer. And then the thoughts would turn darker and I would strongly consider acting on the vile suggestions that utter nobodies online had given me.
By 2009, I had stopped regularly performing in public and in the few instances where I did take a gig, I vehemently refused to have any pictures or videos of me taken. I gradually lost the extra weight after graduation and arrived at my current size of 80.7 kg but I still felt heavy, and I still refused to be photographed by anyone outside of my immediate family. I was also uncontrollably nervous and the thought of playing before people, something that I did without issue for years before, was impossible for me.
I was having a nervous breakdown.
I had retired as a performer because the dark thoughts in the back of my mind had won. The seven and a half years of being the victim of stalking did nothing to help either. The only personal image I would use was an old headshot taken in late 2012, which is still on several of my stores at the time I am writing this, and I am not even smiling in it.
Looking at myself in the mirror, I saw only a shell that was coming apart at every conceivable seam. I refused to share or even take any personal images because I felt that I was too ugly, too fat, or too tweaked out from constant nervousness. I hated my body. I hated myself. I felt like Jack Nicholson in Batman (1989) after he becomes The Joker.
So, over the course of the summer I decided to start over. I got an entirely new professional and casual wardrobe filled with colours after wearing nothing but drab blues and browns for years. I sought professional help to guide me with my body image issues, and realized that I have body dysmorphia and I am working every day to build up my confidence in my own skin and to realize that I am perfectly comfortable being who I am.
I want to take this moment to announce my official return to the professional music and art worlds.
I am not sure how to end this post as it is late at night and I have had to relive so much in order to create this, but all I can say is thank you and I love you all. Be well, be safe, and I’ll see you soon.
The cool, dewy air of late summer greeted my cousin as he awoke to begin his daily chores. It was a relief from the musty confines of his cottage and a rare chance to enjoy the privacy away from his brothers and sisters in the pale, pre-dawn hours. As a young man in his mid-teens, he both revelled in his emerging freedom and loathed the responsibilities that came with it as he began to tend to the land. He was the first to wake, and thought it appropriate to begin work as soon as possible to limit his time in the afternoon sun. As he laboured, the small home began to stir as it usually would, the younger children quickly disturbing the rest with their games, and his mother beginning to cook the day’s meals. It was amidst this ordinary routine that a very unordinary sound drew the cottage and the entire village to a standstill. A growing roar fast approaching from the west had halted all activities and had awoken the remaining sleepers. Men, women, and children alike watched in horror as they saw the German Luftwaffe flying overhead, on their way to bomb Kraków in the opening hours of World War Two.
Over the next seven years, the family in that little cottage, my family, would be forcibly relocated to ghettos and concentration camps. They were shot, beaten, raped, starved, tortured, and ultimately murdered as part of the Nazi’s Final Solution. A little girl barely past the age of ten was beaten, skinned and turned into a lampshade for German consumers. A young man was shot in the head and his body sent for rendering to be made into soap. The elderly and infirm were killed outright if they had not already starved or succumbed to typhus. Of the entire household, there was only one survivor. One man who lost everyone and everything he had ever loved. He immigrated to the United States in 1946, and lived out his days reminding us of the atrocities that he had experienced in Poland. Reminding us of his three-day long torture session in a dark cellar in the ruins of Warsaw, where he had been chained in a bathtub and endured gallons of ice water poured over him for the amusement of the German soldiers. And to remind us to never let this happen again.
I am sharing my family’s Holocaust story, or as much of it as I know, because the world has once again decided to go headlong into that abyss of hatred and the United States, Italy, Hungary and Austria are leading the wretched pack of diseased wolves into the darkness. I have long held my tongue on political issues, especially in regards to the US, out of fear for my family’s safety if I dared to criticize the so called “alt-right” or “white nationalists” or whatever else these hatemongers are using to make themselves more marketable to the gullible talking heads of the twenty-four-hour news cycle. But I can no longer be silent as I see more innocent people being shot while attending synagogue, or individuals being beaten by unmasked Klansmen at Nuremburg-esque rallies held by the sitting president because of the colour of their skin, or the continued atrocities occurring at the U.S.-Mexico border as children are ripped away from their families to sit in cages within makeshift concentration camps where a psychotic paramilitary group both creates and enforces its laws within these centres.
I have seen so many people proudly declare “I am a nationalist!” on social media, blind to the inherently xenophobic nature of the ideology and the hatred, brutality and genocide it has been directly responsible for over the past century. I have seen now former friends and even relatives declaring their love of nationalism, carefully stating how different they are from the “white nationalists” so as not to come off as racists themselves. However, I have yet to see a single “nationalist” who isn’t white, or who doesn’t engage in the exchange of racial slurs in casual speech, or who doesn’t promote anti-Semitic conspiracy theories in Facebook posts laden with the red, white and black homages to Nazism complete with archaic Jewish caricatures. The absence of that one word gives them the illusion of non-responsibility when a counter-protester is run over in Charlottesville, or a mass shooting occurs within a synagogue or mosque, or when a war veteran decides to drive into a crowd in order to “target Muslims” while chanting “thank you Jesus” as he is arrested. That absent word allows for deniability in statements such as “he/she wasn’t a real nationalist” or “what he/she did was wrong, but doesn’t speak for us as a whole.”
Alt-right, nationalist, white nationalist; the term does not matter, each is synonymous with the other. One may not approve of the methods of another label, but in the end, they agree on their principles. After the shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, there may have been nationalist voices decrying that act of barbarity, but there was not a single tear shed nor a memorial service held for those lives lost led by any proclaimed nationalist. And while they did not seem to rejoice in the outcome on the surface, the social media postings and memes that came afterwards by these radicals certainly showed that they have little or no sympathy for Muslim victims of white supremacist violence.
The willingness of modern people, especially in the United States, to tolerate such carnage is identical to the “none of my business” attitude that prevailed amongst average German and Italian citizens during the Nazi and Fascist years. It becomes easy to ignore the consequences of radical opinions when one’s own hands are not sullied and it does not interfere with their day-to-day living. After all, they are still receiving a paycheque and any of that dirty business is secreted away in covert prisons or facilities in the middle of nowhere. How soon that assertiveness changes when the hidden horrors are exposed to the world and that they had been living directly beside it for years without uttering a sound in protest.
The atrocities that are occurring today must not go un-protested. They must be revealed to every citizen of the world as they happen so that they may not be perpetuated and that the soul of a nation does not perish, and that the perpetrators are punished to the full extent of the honourable law. And the nations where these crimes have occurred must acknowledge their part in allowing such brutalities and seek to come to terms with that reality in the aftermath.
I will not be silent and, as Victor Klemperer said, I will bear witness.