“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.

How the light gets in

photoWhen you work as a consultant, as I do, you end up in a lot different kinds of unpleasant work spaces. There is the big room that requires industrial strength head phones to concentrate, and there is the office awkwardly shared with your supervisor who has no where else to put you. But the worst for me, personally, is the dark cube tucked into a windowless corner where the sun never shines. Not knowing if it is raining or sunny, or even day or night, wears at me. I’d have been awful on a submarine.

My latest assignment had put me in just such a place, until I had the bright idea to bring a globe into my office. It’s decorative and kind of pertains to my job and it almost fit between my desk and the wall. I just needed another inch or two.  The office manager took pity on me and my minor attempts at interior decorating, and okayed scooting my cube out a bit so that the globe could stay. Lo and behold. Once the scoot was made, a small piece of metal kept the two cube walls from joining perfectly.  I now have a crack in my walls.

raising5I maintain several different blogs. I have a blog where I write about peace and I like to feature photography and art about the subject. It’s fairly easy to find. I have another blog where I write about joy and photos of happiness are even more ubiquitous. But how do you picture hope? That’s a tough one.  On this here blog, which is about hope among other things, I’ve used the sun breaking through clouds and an image of a small plant shoot coming up in barren soil. Hope is a harder thing to picture. At least for me, it used to be.

No longer. If the door across the hall is open, sunlight now seeps in through the crack in my wall and what a difference it makes. My whole attitude at work has improved, and left me pondering the many wonders of letting a bit of joy ooze in through an imperfection. More than once I’ve found myself humming lyrics that go “there is a crack, a crack in everything …. that’s how the light gets in” and wondering where in the world I got those words from.

A minute on Google just solved the mystery. Leonard Cohen’s song “Anthem” is either the world’s most depressing song about hope, or it’s the most hopeful song that could be written about a depressing world. I’m going to go with the latter.

I now have my own photograph of what hope means to me and it’s a simple picture of a gap between two office cube partitions. Better yet, I found this fine video of “Anthem”. It gives Cohen’s poetic lyrics superimposed on images that just might make you feel like it’s not that bad after all. Give it a try.

One more plus — I just found a great post about this song on another blog called That’s How the Light Gets In. It’s worth checking out, and this day just keeps getting better.

Bubblegum … not just for kids

bubblegumWiki says that bubblegum music is “contrived and marketed to appeal to pre-teens and teenagers, is produced in an assembly-line process … often using unknown singers and has an upbeat sound. … a catchy melody, simple chords, simple harmonies, [and] dancy (but not necessarily danceable) beats…

What’s not to like about that? As far as the fifty year old hero of z2, Alex, is concerned, nothing. Alex has plenty of mature thoughts, but he thinks that music is for whistling, and exercising to and bubble gum works just fine. In fact, he is rather proud of his collection spanning five decades of catchy music with a beat and not a lot of complicated messages.

I listened to a lot of bubblegum music to come up with the nine songs to include in this novel. Two that initially made the cut and then were later rejected were Vanity Fare’s 1970 hit “Hitchin’ a Ride” and NSYNC’s 2000 hit “Bye Bye Bye”.

Have a little innocent fun yourself checking out this video of Hitchin’ a Ride.

Then release your inner child of 2000 and sing along to Bye Bye Bye

For more on music in novels, check out my x0 blog here for reasons why you should not quote lyrics in your book and my y1 blog here for songs I wished I had used.

Music for doing what needs to be done

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Website

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Website

Like the other members of the Zeitman family, Alex finds that music helps him do the extraordinary things of which he is capable. To me, this is merely interjecting a bit of realism into the plot. Music helps me stay awake late at night when I am driving. Music helps me get out of bed and face a tough day, thanks to the fact that I have an alarm tied to an mp3 player with a special selection of wake-up songs. I play one kind of music when I am cooking a big meal or doing a chore that takes extra energy, and other types when I am stressed and need to relax. I think most people use music, the right kind of music for them, to bring out their strengths and to help them do what needs to be done.

Because Alex can slow time down, it is natural that he gravitates to songs that tie into this talent.  When he slams his car door only to realize that he has hit the lock button already and has left his keys on the seat, he turns to the great Diana Ross of the Supremes to help him.  Please check out this Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Tribute to the Supremes, and enjoy the video of “Stop! In the Name of Love” here.

Stop! In the Name of Love

And that’s the way it is…..

I’m old enough to have once been a fan Walter Cronkite, whose calm and mostly objective delivery of the evening news earned him the title of “most trusted man in America.” Today, I grab my news from my email provider and supplement it with Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” which is often great fun but technically neither objective nor news. I know this but I consider it my news source anyway.

Has life gotten better since the days of Walter? Or worse? In the spirit of Cronkite, let’s take a look at today, April 9th.

In 1241 the Mongols defeated the Polish and German Armies.  Seriously. On April 9.  After that it appears that there was a whole lot of fighting by a whole lot of people, although on this date in 1454 the city-states of northern Italian signed a truce that lasted for almost 50 years. Go Italy. And on  April 9, 1865 Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant and ended the civil war.

Click to visit the National Film Preservation Foundation

Click to visit the National Film Preservation Foundation

It was 74 years ago when  the Daughters of the American Revolution decided that Marian Anderson’s ancestry made her unfit to sing at Constitution Hall. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the DAR as a result, and on April 9, 1939, Marian Anderson sang instead on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before a live audience of seventy-five thousand and a national radio audience of millions more. Click on the image to see the video.

Today we had stabbing attack on a campus of Lone Star Community College, easily within twenty miles of my home.  Fourteen people have been injured, several very seriously, and as of last report no one has any idea of why.  I sit on my front porch blogging and waiting for more news to make it on to the internet.

And that’s the way it is, on April 9, 2013.

Latitudes and attitudes

oil spill from space

oil spill from space

Three years ago this month, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in the  Gulf of Mexico. Eleven people were killed and it took experts three months to stop the flow of oil onto the sea floor. Those living along the gulf suffered significantly, and t shirts saying FUBP were selling well in New Orleans. You could see the oil slick from outer space.  We held our collective breath at the unexpected experimenter in what 5 million barrels of oil discharged rapidly at on ocean depth of 5000 feet might do to the world’s ecosystem. Those of us who write science fiction in our heads all day came up with plenty of possibilities.  None of them ended well.

fubp

Best Seller

It was a significant to me for more reasons, however, than concern and outrage. My day job is in the oil business. I consider myself a pragmatic environmentalist. Over the years I met people who worked for BP, and they were as reasonable and ethical any other group. The fatal combination of cost-cutting, bad decisions and eventually bad responses was tragic, pointing to the need for better regulation, better enforcement, and far less hubris when we pit ourselves against nature.

The novel z2 takes place during 2010 and Alex, the hero of the novel is married to a geophysicist.  When I wrote z2 I let his wife Lola express some of my own concerns on the subject.

Alex was used to listening to Lola fret about items in the news, and had long ago accepted that she took world events to heart in a way he simply didn’t. But tonight she was especially distraught. A drilling rig called the Deepwater Horizon had just exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, apparently killing eleven workers and leaving undetermined amounts of oil spewing out into the sea.

“Geez, those poor men. Their poor families. You know, I’ve stood out there on the rotary floor, feet away from these guys. Alex, those roughnecks are amazing.” She thought for a second. “I could have been out there.”

“But you weren’t there,” Alex said calmly. He knew that Lola’s fervor was only partly fueled by her concern about the injuries and deaths. Nigeria had a horrible history of largely ignored oil spills, and Lola was passionate about her industry’s need to operate without such destructive mistakes.

“These are my people,” she said sadly. “Most of them want to do things right. But they just f**ked-up big time.”

“Don’t get ahead of yourself here,” Alex tried to comfort her. “They’ll probably have it plugged back up by tomorrow and everything will be fine. “

I wanted the book to also present another point of view. Each of my books includes links to nine songs that serve as a sort of “soundtrack” and reflect the different tastes of each novel’s protagonist.  Alex likes pop music and one of the songs I chose for z2 was Jimmy Buffet’s “Changes in Latitudes.” I like to link to a video, and I was able to find a great version of Jimmy Buffett performing “Changes in Latitudes” at a concert in Gulf Shores, Alabama on July 11, 2010 designed to raised money for those damaged by BP’s ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a great counterpoint to Lola’s perspective.  Please enjoy it here.