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An American, Chicago Born
Fourteen billion years ago, at the heart of the universe, An explosion occurred that we call the creation of space and time. The fragments from that explosion fled their quintessential origin and Raced in every direction at greater than the speed of light. We, of course, you and I, are the condensation of these star-borne fragments: Matter aware of itself. Star children with brains and consciousness, who can look back across All of space and time, To re-experience and almost comprehend the moment of our birth.
I am an American, Chicago born, as Saul Bellow says in the opening lines of Augie March. My story begins with a surprising spring blizzard on Chicago's Near North Side. It's April 11, 1934 (ironically, the hottest year in U.S. history), and my slim and trim mother is in Woodlawn Hospital trying to give birth to a nine-pound baby boy while snow lashes the windows and piles into six-foot drifts outside. To help with the pain, my mother is given the ever-popular scopolamine as a childbirth anesthetic. But as every doctor knows, it's not really an anesthetic; it's a pretend amnesiac, producing so-called "twilight sleep"—which is to say, the delivery still hurts like hell, but you are not supposed to remember it. My mother did remember it—and screamed her head off. Which is why I am an only child.
Both my parents and two grandparents were also born in Chicago. In fact, this writing celebrates the one-hundredth birthday anniversary of my parents. My grandfather Max Torgownik, a tailor from Krakow—and a gambler—was a character straight out of Fiddler on the Roof—beard, yarmulke, and homilies to match. He could have called his little shop "God and Me," whereas the Fifth Avenue version in New York was already widely known as "Lord and Taylor." His tiny curly haired wife Esther was the family saint, also the first woman buyer for a major Chicago department store—Goldblat Bros. Max and Esther came to the U.S. in 1905, a few years before Max's cousins, the brothers Max and Sam. These highly intelligent and energetic men quickly learned English and became an active part in the growing interface between the Yiddish and American life of Chicago. They started buying and selling used violins—a very important part of the immigrant community. Over two decades they grew from being instrument peddlers, to becoming partners in the largest music publishing and wholesale instrument business in the Midwest—a firm called Targ and Dinner, which later gave millions of dollars for the construction of a music library in Israel. (This generosity, together with there being two Max Targs, created serious problems for me and the FBI in the 1950s. But I'm jumping ahead.)
In 1937 the two brothers returned to Krakow in Poland to urge their extended family to come out of harm's way and join them in safe and prosperous Chicago. I have a photo from that visit, showing eighteen successful-looking men and attractive women sitting around the dining table set with candles and crystal as part of their Krakow reunion. Max and Sam were unable to convince a single person to come back to the U.S. with them, and within two years all these cheerful and loving people had been murdered by Nazi troops sent to Poland specifically to exterminate the Jewish population. Historically, it has always been the wealthy, well-integrated ones who feel they are part of the community and stay behind to be killed; while the young ones, who were sent by their loving families to get an education and have nothing to lose, get the hell out while there is still time.
Even Jews who tried to come to the U.S. often didn't make it to our shores. In May of 1939, the German transatlantic liner St. Louis left Hamburg, Germany, with 937 Jewish refugees on board. This was one year after Kristallnicht (the night of broken glass) when the Nazis coordinated an attack on all Jewish people and their property in Germany. The hopeful refugees from "the final solution" were sailing to Cuba, as a sanctuary. But as the ship entered Cuban waters, the government caved in to widespread anti-Semitism, fanned by the pro-Fascist newspapers, and turned them away. Our president, Franklin Roosevelt, and the U.S. Congress (in another day of infamy) also expressed no willingness to accept them—as did England. Everyone felt they already had enough Jews. So they had no choice but to sail back to Nazi Germany to meet their fate. My grandfather, Max, was lucky to have come to the U.S. on this same ship, landing at Ellis Island in 1905.
Probably my earliest memory, at the age of about nine months (walking but not talking), was of climbing out of my high, slat-sided crib. Despite having pajamas with feet sewn in, I managed to climb over the top rail and slide safely down the slats to the floor. I then padded across the living room to surprise my mother, who was having coffee with a girlfriend in the kitchen. I remember how shocked she was at my appearance. For weeks after that, I was safety-pinned to the sheets of my crib. (For those interested in such things, I have distinct mental pictures of the dark red Oriental carpet on the floor and the low windows to my left.)
Other early Chicago memories include going to Oak Street Beach with my mother and splashing in the deeply rippled sand of chilly Lake Michigan; and later, as an eager three-year-old fishing for goldfish—difficult for me to see—with a little net in the window of my maternal grandfather Ben Jesselson's South Side fish market. His parents came from Baden-Baden. Grandpa Ben would occasionally throw a handful of quarters onto the sawdustcovered floor of his shop to give me practice crawling around and locating things that were hard to see.
Thank God I finally got glasses at age four, and learned to read soon after, using giant-size flash cards with my patient and encouraging mother, Anne Jesselson Targ, by the fireplace in the evening—just like young Abe Lincoln. At that age, I also loved to get up at six o'clock, put on my warm bathrobe and fuzzy slippers, and go for a ride in the cool light of dawn helping the Borden's milkman carry eggs, cheese, and bottles of milk from his horse-drawn, ice-filled delivery wagon to the front porches of houses in our South Side neighborhood. This would be right after I heard the morning hillbilly music and hog and grain prices from WLS, Chicago talk radio with National Farm Radio reports. At this point readers may begin to wonder, "Is this guy still alive?" This simpler prewar world has a strong nostalgic pull for many of us older Americans.
I identified with the "Elephant's Child" of Kipling's Just So Stories, which my mother read to me when I was five. I was the baby elephant with "insatiable curiosity," who put his nose into everything and got it pulled very long by the crocodile—searching for truth, love, understanding, perhaps even God. It was not only a burning desire to understand the way of the world, but also to do it—to try it for myself, even if I had to get my nose in it to see it, which was often the case. Even today, I must read closeup with my nose in the book, but I generally read quite rapidly.
Face blindness was another continuing and very perplexing problem for me—still is. It's a perceptual defect where people all look more or less alike—two eyes, a nose, and mouth. What more is there to see? This face blindness (prosopagnosia) is a developmental problem of the visual cortex. In my case this lack of what developmental researchers call neural sprouting was probably the result of congenitally very poor vision. It can even affect people with so-called normal vision, who have had strokes, brain injury, or other congenital defects. The exact cause is not known. You not only don't recognize people you have met, they don't even look familiar if you meet them out of context! This is a particularly confusing disability for a child on the playground where he is supposed to be learning how to make friends. At least in the classroom, I could memorize which person was sitting in which chair—back when the desks were screwed to the floor. Today, face blindness is a new hot topic in digital image processing and computer face recognition research. An excellent website devoted to this subject is maintained by Bill Chaisser, a face-blind San Franciscan who describes the situation as follows:
Researchers several years ago isolated facial recognition to a part of the brain known as the right temporal lobe, and recently they have pinpointed it to a more precise area known as the "fusiform face area." The precise point is not relevant to someone who can't recognize faces, but what is relevant is this: Researchers have isolated recognition of most patterns other than faces to a different part of the brain on the left side. Since an injury or malfunction can occur in one spot and not the other, this situation establishes a physical explanation for the occurrence of face blindness.
Cecilia Burman is another face-blind Internet writer. She has a very interesting site full of explanations and examples of living with the problem. She writes:
Most people think that if you can see something like a face, then you must also automatically know who you are seeing. The problem with this approach to prosopagnosia is that you do see the face. You see it as an image using the brain's image center. You can also see it using any of the other intact centers. This means that you can see the person's gender, age, etc. But you just cannot see who it is. These symptoms are very confusing for someone who has them, and they are probably the reason why many face-blind people go through all their entire life not knowing that their problems are caused by prosopagnosia.
A blind friend, who is a sociology professor at Stanford, once told me that he has an easier time than I do. When he is at a conference, he just stands aside with his white cane in his hand, and if someone wants to talk to him, they come by and pull his sleeve and announce their name. Nobody expects him to recognize anyone. However, my face blindness continues to cause frustration, loneliness, and confusion for me because my colleagues of many years simply can't believe that I don't recognize their unique and very special faces. This has created many challenging situations in my life—some of the more interesting will follow. (Dating identical twins was probably the most confusing. Throughout my life, I have found relations with women to be profoundly intricate— whether real or imaginary—even when complex conjugation wasn't involved.) My really good friends usually tell me who they are at once.
The opposite situation is seen throughout my favorite novel Anna Karenina, where Tolstoy depicts dozens of dinner parties and cocktail parties. These are the major concern of most of the characters in the book—since the men only pretend to work, and the women only pretend to love them. The preoccupation of all of the women is what they will wear and whom they should invite. It is an example of the wasted lives of people utterly trapped in their social conditioning. (Of course Tolstoy knew the revolution was soon to come—as it always does when the poor get tired of supporting the idle rich.) But at these parties, people are not face blind, rather they are clairvoyant! All the players seem to have the ability to tell from the briefest glance across the room if a woman is about to divorce her husband, if a man has a new mistress, or if the woman on the balcony wants to meet you in the garden at eleven. My highly psychic dear friend and remote viewing partner Hella Hammid could do that, but I have never seen anyone else own up to such talent. She could read people like a book, right down to their underwear—or CIA credentials. I, on the other hand, don't even recognize myself in the mirror, with my gray hair and my new rimless glasses. The image feels only vaguely familiar.
However, my eyesight notwithstanding, as a child I did have surprising success assembling Erector sets and taking apart alarm clocks—even adjusting tiny set screws on the wheels, because I could hold them as close to my face as necessary. Later, I designed and hand-wired (and sold) a number of very high-quality vacuumtube-driven music amplifiers—with a magnifying glass in one hand, a soldering iron in the other, and a surgical hemostat holding the parts together.
It seems I learned early that we all have awareness and possibilities which are not limited by the physical body. That is how I dealt with the ongoing celebration of what I call "National Mock the Handicapped Week"—in school, in films, and even from teachers who should know better. I remember telling a teacher that she should be ashamed of herself for calling me "four eyes" in front of the class. For my boldness I was taken to the principal's office—and privately commended by the very enlightened woman in charge. I had somehow already figured out that I was not available to be insulted by someone for whom I had no respect, even if she was a teacher. Again, it's very important for kids to develop self-esteem, before they can give the self away.
In the Eightfold Path, Right Intention informs such compassion and goodwill toward others. Buddhism teaches that there are many bodies and one consciousness. And what we call love is part of that universal consciousness. Puppy love for the girl across the classroom aisle is pure openhearted love at six. For me at six, this love—wanting and needing nothing—was focused on a little round-faced girl with blond braids named Jane Lynch, to whom I have never spoken one word. This is probably a direct experience of sexual energy, or more likely love energy—a kind of omnipresent radiation without a radiator. At that age, or younger, I had a strong sense of aesthetic awareness. I would cry real tears, again and again, overcome with the beauty of Degas' pirouetting dancers, their diaphanous cloud-like tutus floating about them, in the big folio art books in my father's library. Even now, I don't know why the child in me was so deeply touched by these impressionist figures.
Childhood is perhaps the last time for decades that we are in touch with our own delicious flow of pure loving awareness, which is, of course, who we really are. It is what the Indian sage H. W. L. Poonja (a disciple of Ramana Maharshi) would call "love, loving itself, your own self." He says, in his book The Truth Is, "You are always in love. Bliss is not an experience, it is your nature."
Love is a place to reside. Love is who you are, rather than something to do.
A bit older love appeared for me at ten, when my little girlfriend Virginia and I almost set fire to the school, having been given freedom to roam because we were such good students. We were both in a sight-saving class, and the teacher was trying to encourage our independence. From the top of the school building, we made and flew paper airplanes, dripping with balls of fire from burning highly flammable celluloid, which we had stripped from the edge of our wooden rulers. A neighbor across the street called the police, and we got a "U" in citizenship on our report cards. But it was a great adventure—long remembered.
About this time I found the magic stores in the Chicago Loop near my father's popular Dearborn Street bookshop, Targ's Books. I began to practice card tricks in front of the mirror. I loved to fool adults. The reason that magic tricks can be done close up is that there is absolutely nothing (no moves, no sleights of hand) for the observer to see in a properly done trick, whether it's cards or cups and balls. I'll have more tales of magic to tell as we go along. Before the Dearborn Street shop, my father had had another bookstore on Clark Street in Chicago's North Side. Many famous and soon-to-be famous writers from the 1930s congregated there: Nelson Algren, James T. Farrell, Richard Wright, Mario Puzo, John Reed, and Fred Dannay are just a few who come to mind—all this literary activity was from a man who never graduated from high school. My father was very welcoming to all, communist and non-communist alike, though he was personally highly allergic to any sort of dogmatism. At eighteen, he had left his West Side Polish neighborhood to become a copy boy, manuscript reader, and salesman for McMillan Publishing. He was allowed to be a first reader for submissions because of his already prodigious knowledge of American literature—even as a teenager. While I was reading science fiction at his age, he was reading real books. It was his boss at McMillan who suggested he change his name from Torgownik to the more American sounding Targ. "Torg" or Targ is the Indo-European word for center, as in "target." All the family adopted "Targ" at that time. A torgownik was a person with a shop in the town center or square. (In Sweden, the buses returning to the center of town all display the word "Torg," as their destination.) I guess being a square was my cultural heritage.
Excerpted from DO YOU SEE WHAT I SEE? by RUSSELL TARG. Copyright © 2008 Russell Targ. Excerpted by permission of Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc..
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