by Lazarus Chernik
I was born and raised an only child in the Midwest just North of Chicago. My father was a mechanical engineer with Aspergers (though no one called it that back then) and my mother was a legendary Library Director. My little city was typical of the Midwest at the time, with raging cultural wars between the descendants of immigrants from various clashing cultures. German Catholics and Italian Catholics and Danish Lutherans kept to themselves, and I — an atheist with a Slavic last name — had few extended family and almost no friends around me. While there certainly were classic minorities in my hometown, I was among those Dumb Pollocks that bullies found easy to rally gangs against and chase through town. My saving grace was 1. Not being dumb, and 2. Being quick and athletic enough to lose those predators bouncing across the boulders along the shore of Lake Michigan as fast as rabbit through a briar patch.
But that's where anything "typical" about my upbringing ends.
But my parents valued education and sacrificed to put me into an International Private School in a neighboring city. It was very small, less than 40 students per grade, and many were the children from all over the world. Some were the children of executives who had moved to the local International HQ of their company. Others were children of successful immigrants and every year, exchange students attended from every continent on earth. Furthermore, I was exposed to LGBTQ+ friends at an early age, being in classrooms too small to be isolated. Of course, being from the neighboring city, I was considered as much an outsider as everyone else. The joke was that the school was so small, every person had to attend multiple cliques in order to keep up with societal expectations. I was the nerd/geek/athlete/metal/goth/teacher's pet/writer/artist.
I started working for my father at age 10, and while I earned money (barely), I missed out on many teenage bonding rituals with my friends. I also developed awkward medical issues. Most importantly though, I found passion for storytelling and art and writing software (this was the 1980s, when almost no teenager did those things). All of those things, combined with my primary role-models were autistic black sheep, my social skills developed slower than other things in my life and I made mistakes with people that I regret — nothing criminal. But I also learned how sensitive I was to others' feelings, which led me to befriend people from far outside my own experience. Strangers appreciated the respect I gave them and my lack of judgement — and so I met villains. No, really. For some reason, absolutely terrible people opened up to me, and that trait has lasted through adulthood. Don't get me wrong, I've never considered them friends or anything but awful people, but that window into minds so different from my own contributed to my storytelling.
Eventually, I went to New York City to art school. Yes, I could have gone to almost any school. I even had scholarships for engineering and computer science, but here is what happened. I wanted to tell stories. My mother encouraged me to write. But no one would read my stories. My mother would try, but get distracted. My father only read technical manuals and histories. I didn't have have teen peers who liked to read. And my Private School, being focused on producing more executives and doctors, did little to anything to encourage artistic talent. Plus- and I find this amazing looking back at it - in my little class of 36 students, there were at least 4 of us who were talented enough to have turned into professional writers. But anyway, with all that lack of support, I learned something. While it might take hours or even days for a person to read a story, it only took seconds to react to a work of art. So, I focused on learning how to create video games. I could have become a movie director, but there were unique social influences to dissuade me from that too. My family couldn't afford the equipment, and the "film-making clique' of my class specifically excluded me from every project, which led me to throw up strong emotional walls against that idea (which I regret doing to some degree).
...so many impossible stories!
So, I moved to New York City. Again, surrounded by people from every walk of life — every country, culture, sub-culture, etc. And again, my respect and lack of fear allowed me to meet amazing people who taught me so many things. While I grew up with Koreans and Sikhs, college allowed me to have long deep discussions into the night with people from everywhere more-than-happy to ensure that I understood and appreciated them. And I got involved in so many impossible stories! Seriously. Many kinds of stories people say "never happen", I have lived. Like one day, I was playing pool at a night club in Manhattan, and ran into a group of 14 Black pool hustlers having a reunion. And in their drunken revelry, they decided en masse that they would teach this skinny white boy how to hustle pool as a joke. And they did. Not just the one night - but every weekend for the next year and a half, at least 3 of them would show up to hang out, play pool, and tell me stories and teach me the finest points of being a shark. And one time, I was threatened with a gun. If I wrote that as a movie, people would cry foul and tell me it could never happen. Well, it did. I have witnesses.
I met my true love at art school and led an enviable career in advertising and graphic design for 12 years. After 9/11, we moved to South Florida and then SW Florida, before finally moving to the Seattle area. I never want to move again. I love it here. I love the people and the culture and the diversity and intellectualism and positivity. I do miss the energy of NYC a little. And Mulberry Street.
But in the last 15 years, my wife and I have been traveling 10-15 weeks per year across the country selling art and raising our children on the road to experience every culture the continent has to offer.
So, where am I from? Earth. And that's where my best stories take place.