Saturday, January 31, 2009

Hot Tennis Down Under

I don’t have a writing-related blog article this week because for the past two weeks I haven’t been writing. In fact, I haven’t even thought about writing. I haven’t done much of anything except eat, sleep, and watch tennis. That’s because my husband and I are in Melbourne (pronounced Mel Bin), Australia for the Aussie grand slam tennis tournament.
Australia isn’t on the top of my list of places to visit because it reminds me so much of California, albeit a poorer, less-sophisticated substitute. Sydney is much like my hometown of San Francisco (with better beaches) and Melbourne is much like parts of L.A. (without the Hollywood glitz). Australia has always held two major attractions for me: scuba-diving the Great Barrier Reef and the Australian Open Tennis Tournament. We haven’t done much diving recently, but every few years, Herman and I fly down to check out the tennis.

This year turned out to have some unexpected bonuses. Within the two week tournament time span, there was also the Midsumma festival (Melbourne’s three-week-long gay pride celebration), the Australia Day revelry (Australia’s 4th of July), the Chinese New Year’s celebrations, and a week of the hottest weather in over 100 years with temperatures in the 115-120 degree range. Needless to say, things were HOT down under.

Herman and I love gay celebrations, playing and watching tennis, anything Chinese, and watching shirtless, hunky eye-candy trying to say cool in sweltering weather. So for us, this two-week visit was the perfect storm for enjoyment.

This year, we had tickets for seats in the main stadium that were in the blazing sun, but were also in the second row. So even thought we melted, we had one of the best views in the house. And being in Rod Laver Arena, we were able to see many of the marquee matches. And day after day we did see some of the most exciting tennis matches we’ve ever seen. Especially with the men’s draw; the level of play of the top players has skyrocketed in the last few years.

Of course not everything was up-to-snuff at this year’s event. The first week the organizers sold way too many grounds passes, and the outer courts were like a zoo. It was almost impossible to see any of the better matches on the outer courts. People fought over seats. Another place the organizers dropped the ball was the scheduling of night matches. Several times the day matches went long, and the men’s night match didn’t start until after 11 p.m., which meant the matches sometimes finished well into the wee hours of the morning, and the players didn’t get to bed until well after 5 a.m. That didn’t leave them much recovery time before their next match. It was VERY unfair and was the key reason Novak Djokovich was beaten by Andy Roddick, and also why Jo Wilfried Tsonga did so poorly against Fernando Verdasco. Another sore point with the players and spectators was the use of the heat rule. In years past, any time the temperature climbed over 35 c., they closed the roofs on the two main stadiums and suspended play on the outer courts. This year, the temperature rose over 40 c. on several days and they still refused to close the roof and suspend play. It was only when Serena Williams dropped the first set in her quarterfinal match and was clearly about to loose the match, that the organizers closed the roof, which allowed her to recover and eventually win the match. There was no doubt in anybody’s mind that it did help Serena win. Also, when it was clear that the heat was affecting Roger Federer’s level of play, they moved all his remaining matches to night matches. The organizers were clearly playing favorites.

So there were a few things to bitch about, but as the Aussies say, “No worries, mate,” because there were numerous, more pleasant surprises in this year’s matches. The first was Serena Williams, who started the tournament looking sluggish and struggled through her matches. But every time she needed to pick up her game to win, she did so with tenacity. While other top players crumbled under the pressure of important points, Serena became more focused and lifted her game. In my book, she demonstrated what a true champion she is and why she deserves to be #1.

Andy Roddick had shed 15 lbs in the off season and both looked and moved better. He had a fine run into the semifinals until the Fed Express took him down in straight sets.
Tomas Berdych played superb tennis to fight his way into a quarter-final match against Roger Federer. Then he trounced Roger for two and a half sets, and was on the threshold of taking out the world #2, but then the reality of how well he was playing and what he was about to do crept into his head, and he visibly became nervous and started making errors. That’s all it took for Roger to take command and eventually win the match in five sets. But Berdych had played flawless tennis and showed he will surely be a future champion, if only he could manage to get his head together.
The best surprise of the tournament was how well Fernando Verdasco played, downing some big guns like Jo Wilfried Tsonga for a semi-final showdown against Rafael Nadal. That match turned out to be the most exciting of the entire tournament. Despite smashing over 60 winners against Rafa (an almost unheard of stat), Verdasco lost the match deep in the fifth set with a double fault on match point. It was heartbreaking way for him to loose such a hard-fought match, but Verdasco had played the match of his life and refused to hang his head about it, which is why he’s my MVP pick for the tournament.
The other interesting thing about Verdasco was that the TV camera kept zeroing in on his players box to show his most ardent fan (that the announcers kept referring to as his “close friend”). Hmmmm. I wonder what that means?

So as I write this, all is well in the world of tennis. Tonight Serena takes on Safina, and tomorrow we get to see another Federer/Nadal clash. My picks are Serena and Federer, however, I would dearly love to see Safina win.

Taking a break from the tennis, we found time to take in some of the gay pride celebrations. The festivities kicked-off with a massive carnival, which is the single largest event of the multi-week pride celebration. It was held in Alexandra Garden Park beside the Yarra River, just a few minutes walk from downtown Melbourne. There was plenty of lamb on the barbie, live bands, dancing, browsing amongst the community and commercial stall traders, picnics with family and friends under shade trees, shirtless eye-candy showing off tan muscles, and a sea of ice-cold beer to keep things cool. And it seemed to me that, as the Aussies say, everybody and his dog showed up. I say “and his dog” because one of the activities was a dog show in which owners and dogs dressed up and were judged on the uniqueness of their combined outfits. There were a number of dogs sporting rainbow colored coats that were only outdone by the numerous and outrageous drag queens. It was all very creative and tons of fun.

That’s about all from down under. Tomorrow is our last day here before flying back to Thailand, and the day’s events are: the Men’s tennis final, the gay pride parade, and the Chinese New Year’s fair and parade. So we’re going out with a bang!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Alan Chin’s First Book Reading/Signing: Disaster or Triumph?

It had been a long-time dream, and also a dreaded nightmare: my first book reading/signing. A dream because this was my first chance to showoff my work, my taste of fame, my fifteen minutes. It was a minuscule taste of a petite fame, but one has to start somewhere, no? And a nightmare because I have a phobia about reading aloud in public.

I seldom read aloud to myself, but in public I break out in an icy sweat, fear grabs me by the throat, my mind stops working. This condition is the product of my early school years when I would have to read in front of the class. Far from being a model student, I was one of the dumb ones sitting in the back row that carried a facade of cool boredom to mask my lack of learning. Whenever I had to read, I stumbled over difficult words or complicated sentences, my brow would crease together causing a hundred lines, and beads of sweat would pop up like opals on my skin. The other kids enjoyed my misery. They would try not so hard to stifle their mocking laughter. Scornful laughter, what a penetrating thing it was. Giddy and gay and joyful, yet it touched a hidden nerve ever so masterfully.

So I was both thrilled and nervous as the date approached that I was to do a reading at A Different Light Bookstore in the heart of the Castro in San Francisco. It had been many years since I had read in public, so I was hopeful that, with maturity, I had overcome the problem. I had emailed 120 invitations, and heard back from about ten friends. I was hoping that those ten, and perhaps another five more would show.

I selected two passages from my book, Island Song, and practiced reading them aloud for three consecutive days before the big event.

I was scheduled to read on Sunday at 3p.m., and Herman and I drove into the city early and found a parking spot around the corner from the store. When we arrived, the manager explained that the bookstore had ordered an additional fifteen copies for the reading but most had sold already. They only had six copies left. Not to worry, I thought, only ten people were coming and I had six more copies in my briefcase and another ten copies in my car just around the corner.
At 3p.m., there were only two people sitting at the fifteen folding chairs they had set up at the back of the store. My spirits plunged. My fifteen minutes would go unnoticed by all but two people. I stood before them and suggested we give it five more minutes to see if anyone else would show. I chatted easily with a fellow writer from my online writing group that showed up. A few more minutes and three people from my tennis club showed up, which raised my spirits by the width of an eyelash, so I swallowed and suggested that we start.

When I stood before the chairs, which were at the rear of the bookstore, I thanked the bookstore for hosting the event, then introduced myself and Island Song. A number of people who had been milling about the store rushed over and took the remaining ten seats. I began to grin, thinking fifteen people in the audience was considered a success, but then I noticed another ten or fifteen people gathering at the back, behind the chairs! I recognized all but a few faces. My grin blossomed into a smile.

I told them I would read two short passages, then do a Q&A session, and finish by signing any copies people had brought or wished to purchase. I swallowed again, opened my copy to the first passage, and froze. I could feel the fear rising. I knew I was about to make a fool of myself in front of thirty of my friends.

As I read, I tried to keep the pace slow, to give myself time to see the words and read them correctly, but my nervousness had me racing to get through it as quickly as possible. Also, my analytical mind refused to stay quiet. I kept reading passages and thinking I should have worded it differently, with the subject at the beginning and a stronger verb…. Needless to say, my voice quivered, I stumbled, stuttered, read and re-read passages, and often read in a monotone voice. I could feel everyone shifting in their seats, becoming equally as nervous as I was. At one point I stopped and looked up, making eye contact with everyone, and said: “I’m sorry. It’s just that I’m so damned nervous.”

Everyone burst out laughing, a loud bark of delight. I even laughed myself, which relaxed me just enough to allow me to finish reading the passages I had selected.

Once the Q&A started, I was relaxed, confident. As a general rule, there are few things in life that a writer enjoys more than talking about his/her work, and I am no exception. So I smiled, nodded, and encouraged questions. During those few times of silence, I allowed myself to talk about aspects of the creative process and the process of getting published that I thought would interest people. The Q&A lasted about thirty minutes, and by the end of it, I was glowing inside. These were mostly people that I knew and liked, and I was finally able to share with them the joys and heartaches that I had experienced over the years of work leading up to that first reading. I began to think, what could be better than this. It didn’t take long to find out.
As the Q&A wrapped up, and everyone applauded, I began signing books, and talking to people one on one. I found that that’s where I really shined. I loved that very personal, intimate, eye to eye contact. Accepting praise, thanking people for coming and answering those questions people were too embarrassed to ask before the group. That, more than anything, was the most rewarding.

Then, out of the blue, a couple, Tom and Mitchell, who I had never met, asked if Herman and I would join them at their house, which was two blocks away, for some drinks and snacks. As it turned out, they were friends of another couple, Mark and Leif, who I did know and were also there. So after another 30 minutes of schmoozing -- during which time we sold the remaining six copies of Island Song the store had, the six copies in my briefcase, and also all ten copies in my car -- Herman and I joined Tom, Mitchell, Mark and Leif for what turned out to be a delightful evening. The refreshments and conversation lasted well into the night, and our new friends were utterly charming (I know that’s a cliché term but it fits so perfectly that no others come to mind).

Anyway, my disaster turned into a huge success, judging not only by the number of people who attended and the number of books sold, but also by how much I enjoyed my fifteen minutes. Was it worth three long years of work? Possibly, perhaps even more. And the great part is, I’ll get to do it again.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Book Review: The Angel Singers by Dorien Grey

This who-done-it tale is set in Chicago, within the close nit community of the local Gay Men’s Chorus. Soon after Dick Hardesty’s lover, Jonathan Quinlan, joins the chorus, he realizes that the chores has a dark side, that for some members, it’s a cauldron of battling egos, backbiting. . . and possibly murder.
When one of the solo singers is the victim of a mysterious hit-and-run car accident, and another turns up dead, Detective Dick Hardesty is called onto the case to find out if anyone within the chorus was involved with either incident. The tension rises as Dick is sucked into a world of power struggles, gossip, and finger pointing. But as the fog begins to lift, another body clouds the air, and the violence seems to be creeping closer to home.

Although I am, admittedly, not a fan of detective stories, I found The Angle Singers to be a satisfying read. Beyond the normal mystery plot twists, is the convincing story of a community in turmoil. At first it seems that these queens will do anything for a solo number, but as layers of the onion are peeled away, one finds something much more sinister is afoot. This story kept me turning pages, even though I had figured out who was involved early on, I was kept interested to see how the story reveled itself. My only complaint is that the ending seemed a tad abrupt, but that did not diminish the enjoyment I found throughout this story.

Dorien Grey paints rather pleasant prose that is spiked with wit. He gives detailed descriptions of gay relationships, gay parenting, and the hectic life of a private investigator juggling family and career responsibilities. Interesting characters, life style details and suspense, make The Angle Singers an interesting read.

This is the twelfth book in the Dick Hardesty Mystery series. I’ve heard some people call it Dorien’s best work, but I can’t say since this is only the second of this series that I have read. I can say that, having not read the first ten did in no way diminished my enjoyment of this one.