“Only the Strong Survive”

61DxiskibfL._SL500_AA280_When Jerry Butler first sang “Only the Strong Survive” in 1968, he was talking about a man with a broken heart learning to pick himself up and move on. The message resonated as his hit reached #4 on the Billboard Hot 100, with eventual versions by Elvis Presley, the Dutch group The Trammps, and even an eight minute club mix produced by Frankie Knuckles.

tatooThe title was used for an album compilation of soul music, a 2002 documentary on soul music, and it has inspired a wealth of quotes, t-shirts and tattoos. No wonder. The phrase itself goes well beyond recovering from a devastating love affair as it touches on each of our need to find inner strength to overcome whatever life throws at us.

Alex, the hero of z2, has a fondness for oldies. He is a strong man in the classic sense of being big and athletic. But he is also wiser than most, and he knows that true strength comes in many types of packages. As he gets to know the new transfer student named Xuha (pronounced “schwa”) he recognizes that along with the boy’s unusually short stature is a strength that is both physical and mental. Read the excerpt below to understand why Alex hears the Jerry Butler hit from 1968 in his head as he hits tennis balls with Xuha.

“Your real parents?” he asked hesitantly.

“Never knew my dad,” Xuha shook his head. “But I’m told he was not only there when I was born, but he delivered me.” To Alex’s surprised look he added, “I was an emergency birth in a car. Not my style to come into this world in a normal fashion, huh?” Alex could see the raw emotion behind the bravado.

“You knew your mother?” he asked gently.

“Oh yes. She came to the United States because my grandfather was here for cancer treatments. They were from Mexico City. Nice established family. Had some money, at least before my grandfather got ill. The treatments didn’t help and my grandfather died here in Houston hours after I was born. I’m told I was rushed to his deathbed. His first, his only, grandchild. He cried when he saw me and then he died.” Xuha laughed. “How’s that for a start in life?”

“You knew your grandmother then?”

“She raised me until I was almost six. Sort of.”

“Sort of?” Alex asked. He hoped he wasn’t treading too far into personal ground.

“Well, she never was very strong after my grandfather died. Sad. Sick a lot. Always crying. Lot of crying in my history, huh? But she wouldn’t go back to Mexico right away because they buried my grandfather here and she wanted to spend time by his grave. I’m told that my mother agreed to stay with her until she was done grieving, and my grandmother kept promising that she’d be ready to go in just a month or two more but she never was.”

“Your dad didn’t stay too?”

“He couldn’t. He had to get back to work. My grandmother told me that he got angry with my mother when she didn’t come home after a while and my parents fought on the phone and then my mom got hit by a car.”

“No.”

“Yes. Buella said I was three, three and a half. I don’t remember my mother. But after she died all my grandmother did was cry every day and night and I do remember all those tears. She blamed herself for everything. I used to heat canned things up for dinner and try to get her to eat. I guess I was almost six when she died. Just died in her bed.”

Alex looked at Xuha and watched the boy make a clown’s sad face that mocked his own sorrow. “Then I was the one who cried. I thought it was my fault that she died, you see. That if I’d known how to cook she’d have eaten and gotten strong and gotten out of bed and then fed us both.” He added a comic eye roll. “A child’s logic, huh? If I could have cooked better I’d have had someone to feed me.” Alex didn’t laugh.

“Your foster mother found you then?”

calm“Yeah. She was a neighbor, and according to her she was kind of keeping an eye on me already. Newly married, really pregnant with her first child. When Buella died she and her husband took me in and fed me and never fought once about my being there. They raised and treated me like their own, as best they could. Most of what I know about my real parents comes from things my grandmother said, but she told Maria, my foster mom, the same stories. So I believe them.”

“Wow Xuha.” Alex wasn’t sure what else to say when an odd question occurred to him. “So you were born in the U.S.? You’re a citizen?”

“I think so. I have a birth certificate. From the hospital in Houston where my grandfather died.”

“Where does it say you were born?”

“In route to hospital.”

”Well that should count,” Alex mused.

“Why do you ask?” Xuha seemed a little defensive now.

“Oh, it’s nothing. I guess because I am helping out some friends of my son. There are some complicated nationality and immigration issues involved and he knows that I’ve dealt with some of this before. So it was on my mind. It just seems that you’ve had enough trouble in your young life, and for some reason the animosity towards undocumented immigrants has grown exponentially in our region over the last couple of years. It’s pretty sad. I’m just glad to know that you’re okay in that regard.”

Xuha didn’t say anything for several seconds. Alex took the cue and sipped his own tea in silence.

“I don’t think that Maria and Diego have the same luxury,” Xuha said finally.

“No, I was guessing that they didn’t. Let’s keep that between us. Your foster parents sound like wonderful people working very hard to raise a family and do what’s right. I’d hate to see any trouble come their way.”

As Alex and Xuha made their way back onto the court to finish their workout, Alex couldn’t help but notice the song that was playing in his head. Without thinking about it, he was hitting tennis balls to the rhythm of the Motown hit “Only the Strong Survive”.

Check out this video. It will have you swaying in your chair, humming along and feeling just a little stronger yourself. If interested, you can purchase the song at Amazon.com.

And remember …..

fast

With the second song of each book, I pick up on the intensity of the theme a little more. Click on to read about x0’s “We are the World“, y1’s “Party Like it’s 1999“, c3’s “Heads Carolina” and d4’s “I Follow Rivers“.

“Fame”

I believe that one telling characteristic of a person is the music they enjoy. So how could I not feel the same way about my characters? I think about how Alex likes Motown and bubblegum music from the 50’s and 60’s, just like I think about how he likes sports and physics and making a really good pizza from scratch. For me, this is part of the process of getting to know him.
I’m in the process of updating my music page on this blog. I’m including a little description of how each song is referred to in the book, and adding a short excerpt from the chapter that contains the reference to that music. Then, for every song, I’ve found a live performance that I think shows a little of a the personality of the singer or of the song itself. I’ll admit that I’ve had a lot of fun seeking these out. Often the quality of the video isn’t as good as the more glossy clips, but I’ve picked each one for a reason. At the end I am including links to places to buy the music, or learn more about it, and in some cases I am adding related bits about more contemporary music. As always, interested readers are encouraged to support all the artists and websites.
Here is my updated entry for “Fame”,  the first song on the z2 playlist. Enjoy!
FameFebruary is music awards time and the novel z2 begins with hero Alex Zeitman sitting dejectedly in a hospital room watching the 1981 Grammy Awards.  Alex likes his music uptempo and he’s rooting for Fame, made famous by Irene Cara, to win song of the year.  He’s just torn his ACL and his dreams for playing professional basketball are going up in smoke, and to make the evening even more miserable Christopher Cross with his soft rock sound of “Sailing” ends up winning in every major category. Christopher Cross even beats out Pink Floyd for album of the year.  What is the world coming to?

Later, leg elevated and packed in ice, he was taken to a local emergency room. Several other players came along and tried to lift his spirits before the doctor saw him, before the doctor told him that it was likely that more than his evening had ended. His anterior cruciate ligament, commonly called the ACL, had been ruptured quite badly, and he was absolutely out for the short remainder of his college basketball career. The coach was sympathetic enough, even though Alex suspected that the man was mainly relieved that it hadn’t been a sophomore or junior who had been injured.

The hospital staff settled him into a room, having insisted on keeping him overnight for observation. The last of his teammates left, not knowing what more to say. So as he waited for the new pain medication to kick in, he morosely watched Christopher Cross receive a Grammy for song of the year on the tiny television. Alex had nothing against the soft rock song “Sailing” that seemed to be sweeping up the awards that night, but frankly being in a sailboat wasn’t an image that moved Alex much. All that sitting still. He would much rather have seen Pink Floyd win best album. And for best song? He guessed he had been rooting for “Fame”. It was catchy. With a beat. The way Alex preferred music.

Did you really think that fame would make you live forever? He laughed at himself. Of course not. Alex thought about his hopes and dreams for playing some pro ball before he got older and had to move on to something boring but acceptable like coaching high school ball. The doctor had just counseled him that a lengthy program of rehabilitation would help him recover eventually and that surgery was of course possible. But Alex had to face the fact that there was no real excuse for devoting himself full time to his own recovery. With no professional team to pick up the expense, it wasn’t likely that he or his folks could justify all the money for the sort of surgery and rehab it would take to get him back to where he had been. He hadn’t been that good. And, even worse, he’d still be prone to knee injuries for the rest of his career. It just didn’t make sense.

So twenty-two-year-old Alex Zeitman lay with his sandy-colored head on a hospital pillow and sadly watched the end of the 1981 Grammy Awards as he let go of a dream. Crowds wouldn’t cheer as he flew down the basketball court, or be amazed as his sturdy, lightly freckled hands performed spectacular physical feats that would, maybe, have had people remembering his name, at least for a day. He would not play basketball for a living after all.

Check out this video to see why Alex was cheering on the song “Fame.”
You can purchase the music to Fame here.

The fact is that I started each of my novels off with a special song. Click to read about x0’s “Time After Time“, y1’s “A Whole New World“, c3’s “A Texas Kind of Way” and d4’s “Lights“.

Alex Zeitman is, of course, made up of a good bit of Sherrie Cronin, as are all my characters, the sympathetic and the less so.  My tastes in music run more towards stirring lyrics and less towards rhythm than Alex’s tastes do, but in February 2014 I was pretty sure that Alex would have joined me in cheering for Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know”.  It’s a haunting two-sided song, yet it has that mesmerizing tempo that Alex loves. I was glad to see it win record of the year, and to know that in spite of Alex’s concerns thirty-two years ago, good music has hardly died!

None of live videos of “Somebody That I Used to Know” that I could find had very good audio. My favorite is this one of Gotye performing the song in Brussels in February 2012 along with guest vocals from Noemie Wolfs from the Belgian band Hooverphonic. Great fun.

Slowing Down Time

matrixIf you type “slowing down” into Google, one of the first alternatives it will offer you is a search of “slowing down time”. It is obviously a popular topic, and I knew when I created my hero Alex that his ability was hardly unique. Normal humans often report time moving slower during an emergency, although Jeff Wise has a wonderful blog post explaining how researchers have shown this is just an illusion. Fictitious super humans frequently slow down time to stop crime or protect themselves, none better photographed than Neo in the original Matrix movie.

But Alex is just a normal guy, in what I want my readers to believe is the real world. What’s more, time doesn’t merely slow down for him in an emergency, it eventually moves differently for him when he wills it to do so. During much of z2, Alex learns to recognize and to finally use this gift. Along the way, he gives the very nature of time, and the possibility of time travel, some serious consideration.

slowing-time-clockAs I created Alex, I wanted him to discover another who shared a variation of his talent so that at the very end of the book they could work together. Xuha, a short-in-stature student of Maya descent, surprises Alex with his fighting abilities and confides his own time manipulation talents. The two of them consider whether great fighters, athletes, and musicians might not all have a touch of these same abilities.

Here is an excerpt from z2, telling of the first time that Alex uses his ability off of a basketball court.

And then there she was. Alert, wide brown eyes and dark reddish-brown hair almost the color of the logs popped up about eighty yards away, just downstream of the logjam that Ken had called a “strainer.” All three of them shouted to her before the current sucked her back under. Alex felt his own breathing return, just knowing that she was alive. Seconds later she popped up again, downstream of a second clump of branches, but this time she was coughing out water hard. Alex looked closer. Good Lord. She didn’t have her life jacket on.

Ken seemed not to have noticed that fact, as he started moving, relieved, along the shore hoping to intercept Lola somewhere downstream. She was in the middle of the river now, moving fast, and she appeared to be coughing too hard to even try to make her way to shore. Oh hell, Alex thought, I know that she can barely swim. He looked around for anything he could grab quickly.

“Alex, get back here!” Sara yelled it as she saw Alex start to wade out into the fast cold water, a canoe paddle in his hand.

“Alex, no!” Ken joined in as well from his position downstream.

But all Alex could think of was that is he was going to have to pay for his decisions, he was damn well going to make sure that he did everything he could to make this come out right.

Then he noticed how wide the river really was. How far to the center Lola was and how fast she was moving. How slow his own progress in the deep cold water was going to be. And he realized that he’d never make it to her in time. She’d flail on past, still dozens of feet away from him, and none of them would have any way of reaching her before cold and fatigue completely overtook her.

And then it happened. The roar of the water and the sound of Ken and Sara’s shouts faded into a muffled background, and all Alex heard was the sound of his own heart pounding. The beat of it remained steady and firm as the water began to move more slowly. As did Lola. Alex had the odd sensation of walking out onto a basketball court, willing his body to move to the rhythm of the game, of this game. His feet felt light but firm as they moved with power along the rocky riverbed. His hands were strong and capable as they lifted the paddle out towards Lola. He was moving at a normal pace to him, but he was already in chest-deep, and only feet from her now. She looked puzzled but grateful, and Alex heard his own voice boom slowly “Lola! Grab the paddle!”

He thrust it into her hands, and as the current slowly twisted her body downstream, her fingers just barely curled around the white blade. Alex pushed the paddle more firmly into her hands. Her grip tightened as she realized that this ordeal could actually be over. Then Alex used the paddle to pull her in closer, finally reaching out to grab her shirt and drag her in towards shore. She collapsed at the waters edge, still coughing hard and shivering uncontrollably.

Sara rushed to her, and Ken hurried back to them, as Alex himself sunk down into the pebbled sand, now shaking with cold. Slowly, Lola’s coughing picked up speed, as did Ken and Sara’s movements and speech, and then everything moved with his heartbeat again, happening at the pace it should.

“I had no idea you could move that fast,” Ken chided Alex with a relieved grin as he joined the group.

“We yelled at him not to go out into that water,” Sara was shaking her head to Lola. “But thank heavens he did, huh?”

Lola was smiling. She pulled herself upright and stumbled towards Alex to give him a long hug. “How did you ever make it out there to me?” she asked.

“I wasn’t willing to accept any other alternative,” he said simply.

“That’s good,” she laughed. “I’m glad.”

As the rest of the day centered on getting off of the river and getting the Zeitmans dry and warm, and all of them back on the road headed home towards Texas, Alex kept having one thought.

I had no idea. I don’t know why it never occurred to me. But it didn’t. I had absolutely no idea that time would slow down like that for me anywhere but on a basketball court.

For two of my favorite sources of information on time dilation, see
It’s About Time: Understanding Einstein’s Relativity, N. David Mermin, ISBN 978-0-691-12201-4
Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration into the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel, Michio Kaku, ISBN 978-0-385-52069-0