Category Archives: Simon Wood

Not Sweating the Big Stuff

There’s a lot of gloom and doom floating around these days when it comes to the future of the printed word.  People are reading less and less.  Publishers are consolidating both in numbers and in authors.  Technology is changing the way books are made and the way they are read.  Everything is going digital.  The internet has created a mentality of it has to be free or I’m not paying for it.  The rise of YouTube means the world is preoccupied with people’s homemade entertainment.  The book is a dinosaur.  The future is a meteorite that will make the novelist extinct.

While all this has more than a little merit for it to be worrying, I don’t really care.  Now, I’m not being obtuse and breaking out the fiddle while the flames are licking around Rome.  No, I don’t really care, because I can’t do a damn thing about it.  These things are beyond my control.  I can’t halt the march of technology, despite what my pen pal Teddy Kaczynski says.  I can dictate how publishers choose to run their businesses as much as I can control the tides—did that once, got my feet wet.   I can’t dictate what the public does with its disposable income (but they will when I’ve perfected my mind control antenna, then we’ll see who’s the king of all media).  I can kvetch all I want, but it’s not going to change anything, so what’s the point of worrying?  All I can do is hope things don’t change so significantly that I find myself marginalized, then abandoned. 

If the book (in all its connotations) is to change, then I will change with it.  The book is a medium.  It’s packaging.  Storytelling is what counts.  Storytelling can’t change.  It’s a constant—like dishonest politicians.  It’s always been there and it’s always going to be there.  So what if all books go to audio?  Who cares if in a hundred years the book is a pill you swallow and as it dissolves into the bloodstream, the story is carried to the brain where it is experienced as a memory?  At the end of the day, a storyteller is needed—and that’s where I come in.

And that’s where I take hope.  Stories need storytellers.  The way stories are told may change but not the need for a story to be told.  Movies and television are stories projected on a screen and told with images.  Plays are stories acted out by people.  These formats arose through technology.  The book itself is an advancement of oral traditions.  Despite these formats and advances, the story still remains.

It doesn’t matter what happens in the future, but every movie, TV show, video game, magazine, podcast, audio book and cigarette packet warning requires a writer—and that’s where I come in. 

Those who need me know where to find me…

Yours for now and forever more,
Simon Wood

A Year to be Thankful

If you’re reading this, why aren’t you eating?  It is Thanksgiving after all.  Oh, you have one of those families.  I see.  Well, you’re welcome to hang out here.

As I said in last year’s message, it’s apt that they have an English guy doing the Thanksgiving message as Thanksgiving isn’t a holiday that I grew up with, and therefore don’t have any great connection to.  I feel like a guy at a bra wearer’s appreciation society dinner.  I know what a bra is and I’m happy to celebrate them, but the benefits of wearing one don’t do a whole lot for me.

That said, I have a lot to be thankful for this year.  2007 has been an incredible year.  I saw the publication of two novels.  I wrote three books and signed four book contracts.  This enabled me to go full time as a writer, allowing me to live the dream.  I launched my horror pen name with the sale of The Scrubs.  I received another honorable mention in Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, my third in four years.  And the year was topped when I won my first major award by winning the Anthony for best short story.  I’m used to being the bridesmaid when it comes to winning things, so winning the Anthony will remain one of the best, embarrassing and humbling moments of my life.  All in all, it’s been a year of ricochets as one good event has spurred another.  2008 promises to be an even better year.  I’m not sure I deserve it, but I’ll take it.

On the home front, Julie and I celebrated our 9th wedding anniversary.  It seems like we’ve been together much longer—and I don’t mean that in a bad way.  Life’s been a rollercoaster.  A lot has happened over the years.  Even when we’re standing still, we seem to be moving.  I’m glad to have Julie around.  This year has been a tough one which has kept me confined to a room for most of the year, so I’m thankful she stuck around. 

So that’s about it for this Thanksgiving.  I hope you’re spending the day with people you want to be with.  If not, check the bathroom, they might have a window to escape through.

I’m off to a friend’s now.  They’d better have pie.

Yours ever thankful,
Simon Wood
PS: Just because it’s Thanksgiving, it doesn’t mean I’m not working.  I’ll be signing at Pleasant Hill B&N on Saturday and San Francisco Mystery Bookstore on Sunday.  If you’re in the area, I hope you’ll drop by.
PPS: A reader pointed me in the direction of a nice review Paying the Piper picked up, so I thought I’d share.

Here Come The Judge…

I get to smack my gavel again soon as I become a judge for short stories for a well known magazine.  This is my third year as judge.  I’ve received notification that the first batch of manuscripts are on their way.  The thought of it fills me with excitement and trepidation.  Excitement at reading some really great stories and trepidation at reading some not so great stories.

The joy has been that I’ve been lucky to have encountered someone’s work with real promise and it was great to reward that person for it.  The pain comes from deciding who wins and who doesn’t.  I can’t believe the crush of responsibility pressing down on me when I’m short listing the pieces.  Who am I to say what is good and what isn’t?  The question keeps revolving around inside my head.  At the end of the day, I take pride in what I do and I don’t want people thinking I’m a crappy judge, so I take the decision very seriously.

I look for style, structure, prose, originality and a certain indefinable quality that makes me curse and say, “Damn, I wish I’d thought of that.”  It’s at this point that I pray that this represents the best of their work because I don’t need the competition out there.

I have to admit I have a selfish reason for being a judge. 

Who said money?  Fess up.  Who said that?  Don’t make me come back there.

Yes, the money is much appreciated, but that’s not the selfish reason.  Being the judge makes me a better writer.  I get to review work that isn’t my own.  This is very liberating.  I get quite protective of my own work, whereas I can be very callous of others.  It’s easy for me to say this one doesn’t cut the mustard and move on.  It’s said with a frog in my throat when I recognize something lacking in someone else’s rejected manuscript similar to my own work.  I think every writer should take a stint as an editor for this reason.  This little wakeup call helps me to be very critical of my work.  I use the stories I’ve rejected as a check sheet to use against my own pieces.  I must admit I turn a little green when I find screw-ups in my own work.  Professional writer, my arse.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.  Bad stories are just as instructive as the best ones.  You can learn just as much from those that grate as from those that are great.

However, I’m not opposed to a fabulous story.  I look at stories with a mechanical eye.  I break them down into their component parts so I can understand how they tick and hopefully I can use that knowledge to build a better story.

Yours presiding over all,
Simon Wood
PS: One of my own favorite short stories, Acceptable Losses, received an honorable mention in the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror.
PPS: I’m moderating a panel at Clayton Books on Saturday at 2pm.  If you’re anywhere close, please drop by.
PPPS: Thanks to Fran and everyone at Seattle Mystery Bookstore for treating me like a king last Saturday.  If you’re resident of the Emerald City, please support them.

I See The Future And It’s Quite Blurry

Bugger!  I failed my eye-test.  I can’t believe it.  I studied so hard.  I knew all the parts of the eye and I still failed.  The eye-guy says that my close-up vision is still good, but, I can’t see distances for toffee.  I told him he was dead wrong and he said, “Over here, Mr. Wood.  That’s the coat rack.”

Okay, maybe he’s got a point.

I know why I flunked my eye-test.  I get so nervous about it, because I don’t know if I’m answering correctly.  The guy wheels up the giant Elton John glasses circa 1976 and squashes them into my face and asks me which blurry image do I like the best.  Eventually, I can’t tell the difference between the blurry images and I can’t make up my mind which is best. The eye guy loses his temper and I feel like I’m Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man, but Lawrence Olivier isn’t asking, “Is it safe?”  The words that strike fear into me are, “Number one or number two?  I just need to know a number, Simon.  One or two?  One or two?  I can’t let you leave until you tell me.  One or two?”

So I need glasses.  It’s not a problem.  I can deal.  I am a little worried that my writer buddies are going to pick on me now that I have glasses.  I can see some of the hardboiled guys yelling out, “Four eyes,” then stealing my glasses and beating me up.  They’re hardboiled for a reason, y’know.  The cozy people, being more subtle, will just write something mean on my back.  They’re sneakier.

But to my advantage, I can do the dramatic glasses removal during book negotiations.  I look disappointedly at the advance offered and slowly pull my glasses off and rub my eyes and sigh and say, “This is one time I wish I was seeing double (the dollar figure).”  So glasses have their ups and downs.

But I’m going with glasses.  No contacts for me.  I can’t stand anything in my eyes.  The eye-guy had a hard enough time getting the drops in my eyes.  He had to hold me down and pull my lids back to get the stuff in.  Oddly, I kept my mouth clamped shut.  I don’t know why.  I’m definitely not going with the eye surgery.  I’d go on a bad laser day and get zapped, but my mother-in-law dissuaded me.  She just had the surgery and said, “I saw my cornea peel off,” like it was a good thing.  I don’t need to hear that, especially when I’m eating.

So I’ve been wearing glasses for about a week.  It’s okay.  I can see better.  Things used to have that soft focus thing going on, like on Star Trek whenever James T Kirk set eyes on his woman of the week.  Julie says I look very distinguished, but then she laughs and runs away.  I’ve stopped complaining that we need a high definition TV because the picture is for crap.  I did see an intruder in the house, but it was a false alarm.  It was just Julie.  I didn’t see that coming.  Maybe I should have gotten glasses sooner. 

Yours in sharp focus,
Simon Wood
PS: I’m to San Francisco to do a lunchtime signing at Stacey’s with Tim Maleeny and Mark Coggins.  Then tomorrow, I’m off to Seattle to do signings up there.  Check my website for when and where.

My Other Sister

I know I’ve missed Halloween but I thought I would share this true life story from my youth.  It’s one of those events that helped shaped me.  So sit back and enjoy…

I was seven when I met my other sister. 

As a child, it wasn’t uncommon for me to wake up during the night craving something to drink. I usually slept with a glass of water or juice on the nightstand next to my bed. On this particular night, I’d drained my glass and found I still hadn’t quenched my thirst. I hopped out of bed and, glass in hand, left the bedroom I shared with my sister, three years my younger. I switched on the landing light so I wouldn’t disturb anyone and trotted downstairs to the kitchen. I made myself a drink and took it back up the stairs.

As I reached the top of the stairs and turned to face my bedroom, a full-length mirror next to my sister’s bed reflected my image. I wasn’t alone in my reflection and I froze. Behind me was my sister wearing her black polka dotted nightdress. She was lying on the top stair, her face stricken in pain, reaching out to grab my bare ankle. She fixed me with her totally black eyes. There were no whites in her eyes at all, just solid black. Her mouth opened and closed as if trying to say something, but no words made it out.

My mind whirled. How had my sister followed me down the stairs and sneaked behind me without me noticing? What had caused her eyes to turn black? My mind snagged on the falseness in the reflected image, preventing me from answering the questions. For to the left of the mirror, my sister slept soundly in her bed, her face turned away from me. The fact she was wearing a flowered nightdress and not the polka dotted one only confirmed the impossibility of the distressed girl in the reflection being my sister.

My other sister’s hand continued to reach out for me and was within inches of grasping me. I couldn’t tell if she existed only in the reflection or whether she was right behind me. I didn’t dare turn my head to find out. In the reflection, my view of her was at least twenty feet away, but if I turned to face her, then those black eyes would be right on top of me.

Whether my other sister really meant me harm or just needed my help, I didn’t have the courage to find out. I bolted for my room, throwing my drink into the air and screaming all the way.  This meant running directly at the mirror and if my other sister existed there, then I was running straight towards the creature and not away from it. In the mirror’s reflection, my other sister made a desperate lunge, missed me and collapsed on the landing, but she lacked the strength to give chase. I hurled myself on the bed and buried my face in the pillow and bedclothes.

My screams woke my sister and my parents. My mother had to pry me from the mattress that I clung to in the fear that it wasn’t my mother who had me, but a false mother like the false sister I’d seen in the mirror. Even when she managed to unpeel my fingers from the mattress, I refused to open my eyes in fear that I was in the arms of a phantom. But when my mother shushed me and rocked me, I knew no false mother would treat me with such tenderness and I opened my eyes.

“What’s wrong?” my mother asked. “Why all the screaming?”

Through my sobs, I choked out the event I’d witnessed. My mother showed me that my sister, although crying herself from being rudely awakened, was okay, and more importantly, that her eyes were okay.

"You were dreaming,” my mother insisted.

How could it be a dream? I’d made myself a drink. I told my mother this.

“Well, whatever you saw, it isn’t there now,” she said. 

“How do you know?” I demanded.

“Because we would have seen it when we came into the room. Come on, come look.”

My mother tried to show me, but I clung to my bed. She wrenched me free and I went with her, even though I dug my toes into the carpet. She showed me that nothing lurked on the landing, other than my father cleaning up my spilled drink.

At some point when I’d calmed down, my parents put me to bed, but I failed to fall asleep straight away, fearing my other sister would return to get me. Finally, exhaustion claimed me and I slept through until morning.

After that night, I developed a fear of mirrors after dark. Once the sun had set, I averted my gaze or closed my eyes when passing a mirror. I wanted to hang something over the mirrors, but I didn’t want to expose my fear. If I woke during the night needing a drink, I let my thirst go unquenched. Nothing would get me out of bed after dark. I never wanted to meet my other sister again. I feared my escape might not be guaranteed.

Two weeks after the incident my sister was struck down by a nasty bout of flu, which kept her, confined to her bed for several days. The nightdress she wore when the flu hit was her black polka dotted one.

I don’t know if the phantom sister I saw was a premonition of some kind, but I never saw my sister in that stricken pose on the stairs during her influenza bout or at any other time and she never possessed those black eyes. I wonder if the phantom was some form of guardian spirit trying to warn my family of a threat to my sister’s welfare? Regardless, I didn’t look into a mirror at night for another seven years fearing a repeat encounter with my other sister or some other phantom that lurked in mirrors. 

Eventually, when I summoned up the courage in my teens to stare into a mirror at night, I saw nothing, although I broke out in gooseflesh fearing that I would. Now, I’m in my thirties, and if I’m honest, I still fear what I’ll see in a mirror. If I have to get up at night, I don’t turn on the lights and I keep my eyes averted. My other sister has never shown herself again, but I can never be sure it will stay that way.

Yours reflected,
Simon Wood
PS: I’m off to LA for a signing at the Mystery Bookstore with Tim Maleeny and Mark Coggins, then we’re off to Men of Mystery.
PPS: Artist, Deena Warner commissioned a story to go with her 2007 Halloween Card and I came up with something called, Thursday.

NOT GETTING AWAY WITH IT

“How could I kidnap a child and get away with it?” I asked.

This was probably the wrong question to ask an FBI agent right out of the gate.  The agent’s expression turned grim and his answer was clipped and a tad aggressive.  “You couldn’t.  We’d catch you.”

“Yeah, but,” I said before he interrupted me.

“No buts.  We’d catch you.  When a kid gets snatched, we drop everything.  It becomes top priority.  You wouldn’t stand a chance.”

I’ll admit it was at this point I started to panic.  Not because I thought the Feds weren’t going to let me leave the building, but because I saw the novel falling apart around me.  A child kidnapping is a key factor.  A kidnapper with a grudge comes after the family of a newspaper reporter.  I thought it was a good idea.  So did the publisher.  They’d paid me an advance on this very storyline.  In the space of five minutes, my concept was in tatters before it was written because the FBI knew better.

I thought the storyline was going to be tough to pull off, but not this tough.  I quickly outlined the scenario for the book to demonstrate my master plan for counteracting law enforcement procedure.   I waited for him to applaud me for my criminal genius.  He didn’t.

“We’d still catch you,” he said.

I wasn’t too downhearted as I didn’t care if my antagonist got caught, as long as he got caught on page 347 and not page 10.  I put my frayed plotline to one side and we talked kidnappings—procedures, old cases, likely outcomes, etc.  As I listened a single thought rose to the surface.  It’s bloody hard to get away with a high profile crime.  As far as I can see it, as soon as the cops get a hold of the case, you (the criminal) are toast.

The problem is, it is impossible not to leave a trail.  It doesn’t matter if you go hi-tech or lo-tech.  There’s a trail.  As I listened, I could envisage a snail-like physical trail left behind by my fictional kidnapper and the cops following it all the way to his lair.

I couldn’t see a way around the problem.  A kidnapper, being a kidnapper, needs to make contact with the kidnap family.  Phones are a nightmare these days.  Landline or wireless, they’re easy to trace.  Digital seems to be the criminal’s worst enemy.  The technology’s strength is its weakness.  As easy as it is to use, it’s just as easy to locate. 

Going old school doesn’t help matters either.  If the kidnapper sends a letter, he’s going to need a return address for return correspondence.  That doesn’t even cover the issues of how easy it would be to trace the sorting offices the letter went through to narrow down the sender’s location.  Document specialists can lift all sorts of forensic evidence off paper.

The only thing left open to the kidnapper is face-to-face meets and that’s fish-in-a-barrel time for law enforcement.

It doesn’t matter how you slice it, if you kidnap a kid for ransom, you’re going to get caught.

Eventually, with a little a devious ingenuity plot-wise and some character flaws, I built a plotline that worked, but the Q&A with the FBI was a tipping point.  I’m a good guy, but it made me question myself and whether I would ever cross a legal line.  I can’t say I won’t, but I can’t rule it out.  Circumstance may dictate otherwise.  However, the more I write and the more I research crimes for my stories, the more honest it makes me.  In spite of how smart I think I am, I’d get caught.  I’ve seen the inside of police stations, courtrooms and a prison and I quite honestly can say I don’t want to be arrested,  I don’t want to go to court, and I definitely don’t want to go jail.  I wouldn’t last a day in the big house.  This smart mouth would get me into all sorts of trouble.

So a simple question about kidnapping helped turn me into a more law abiding person.  It’s my fiction that’s just plain criminal…

The book is now done and Paying the Piper hits bookshelves on Tuesday.  Obviously, I’m quite excited.  The book has picked up some nice trade reviews, especially from Publishers Weekly.  I couldn’t have asked for better.  I think the book turned out well.  I just hope the FBI do too…

Yours on the verge,
Simon Wood
PS:  I’m going to be out and about for Paying the Piper, so I maybe coming to a bookstore near you.  If you’d like to know where, check out my calendar.

Is It Safe?

I was thinking about the perception of safety the other day.  Julie doesn’t like it when I leave the front door unlocked when we’re in the house.  She doesn’t want anyone storming the castle gates while we’re at home, so she puts her faith in a deadbolt.  A two inch slug of steel not even an inch in diameter will keep her from harm.  She doesn’t worry (but probably will after this blog) that there’s nothing stopping evil doers from chucking a rock through any of our floor to ceiling windows and entering the house that way. 

I started thinking about other safe things in our lives. 

When the little red man tells me not to walk, I don’t.  The little red man knows all about danger.  That’s why he’s red.  When I ignore his advice, my heart rate is up a few beats.

Down on the BART system, a row of yellow bricks tells me I’m safe from the speeding trains if I stand behind the yellow bricks, I’m safe.  And I do feel safe.  The moment I stand on those yellow bricks, I feel queasy.  I’ve put myself in danger.  A train could hit me.  Someone could bump me and send me sprawling onto the electrified rails.  Those yellow bricks have some power behind them.  It’s really silly.  The bricks have no power.  My safety can’t be measured by the width of a row of yellow bricks.  There’s so much other contributing factors that can take their toll on me.

How many of us fear earthquakes, tornadoes, being struck by lightning or an in-law coming to stay?  While these things exist, there’s little chance of them affecting us?

I look around me without my safety goggles on and reexamine my environment.  There are so many things I perceive as safe.  Harm won’t come to me because I am not putting myself in harm’s way.  Theoretically, that is.  But boy, isn’t it a tenuous belief system?  I am safe on the sidewalk because sidewalks are safe.  There’s nothing to say a car won’t plow into me or I won’t trip and fall into road, but I don’t think about these things because the sidewalk is my talisman. 

It all comes down to perception.  If I perceive danger everywhere I go, then I will see danger everywhere.  Perception is reality.  If I think safe, then I am safe.  I guess there’s a little bit of the Pavlov’s dog syndrome at work inside us all.

I quite like it when my thinking goes off the rails like this.  I cross my eyes and I see the emperor without his clothes on.  This is useful when it comes to the stories I tell.  I like to unpick a character’s world until it unravels by attacking all the things that these people hold dear.  Basically, I break down their perceptions and belief system.  Life is a tightrope and I like to twang the cable while there are people on it—fictionally speaking that is.

I hope I haven’t given of you worriers out there something worry over.  If I have, don’t.  Now, sleep tight and I’ll see you in your dreams.

Yours unflinchingly,
Simon Wood

Fun Facts!

I’m feeling frivolous.  I hope frivolous doesn’t mind.  Anyhoo, very few of you have met me, so you haven’t gotten to see or know me in all my splendor.  To remedy this, I thought I’d share a few facts about me.

1. I wear mismatched socks.  I don’t “bunny ear” the pairs together (who’s got time for that).  Instead, I tug the first two socks I grab.  My socks are usually of the cartoon variety, so I get away with the mismatch.  I like to think of my socks as entertainment for my ankles.

2. I like being short and wish I was shorter.  I’ve always been small.  I’m used to being small.  Small looks good on me.  But at 5’-4”, I think I’m a tad too tall.  It puts me in that tall-short category which is no place to be.

3. I find toilet humor damn funny.  A good poo-poo joke will have me laughing like a drain.

4. Not a day goes by that I don’t miss racing cars.  I raced single-seaters from ’90-’93.  It remains the best and worst thing I ever did.  The highs can never be matched, neither can the lows.  It made me a tougher, stronger person.

5. If I could be any fictional hero, I would be Dr. Who.  I’m a lifelong Dr. Who fan.  I think he’s the greatest superhero ever created.  I still hope that one day my parents will tell me I’m adopted and I’m really a Timelord.   It could happen.

6. Most things scare me from heights to buying coffee in Starbucks.  I see the worst in everything.  If it’s going to go wrong, it’s going to wrong around me.  I have a talent for disaster, so everything worries me a little.  Add to that a wild imagination, and within a handful of seconds, I’ve foresee a dozen outcomes.

7. I’m short-tempered–it’s a height related thing.  I have a short fuse.  I like to laugh and joke and not take the world too seriously.  If you ruin that for me, you’re going to hear about it.

8. I’m a bleeder, not a fighter.  Pari has her brown belt in Tae Kwon Do.  My fighting technique extends as far as the windmill.

9. Julie has longer legs than me.  We’re about the same height, but if I have to get in a car after her, I have to scoot the seat forward.  This amuses her.

10. I’m dyslexic and it took me 5 goes at spelling the word correctly.  My reading age is grade 5 or 6, I think.  Someone can read a book out loud faster than I can read a book with my eyes.  This is a reason I listen to a lot of audio books.

11. I believe dessert isn’t food, but a way of life.  Let them eat cake, that’s what I say.

12. I come from a massive family.  Just going back two generations, my family is into triple-digits.  We could have our own phone book.  This contrasts heavily with Julie who only has one uncle and one cousin. 

13. I am not the voice of the Geico gecko, although we are of similar height.

14. My favorite cereal is Special K.  I know it’s a “lady’s” cereal, but I think it tastes good.  When I was little I used to steal my cousin’s Special K before she got up in the mornings and hide it under a layer of cornflakes so she wouldn’t know.  Sorry Hazel.  One the plus side, I always fit into my jeans.

15.  Despite being allergic to cats and dogs, I adopt defective animals from the pound.  I have a longhaired dachshund that is allergic to people and about a dozen other things.  I have one cat that can’t metabolize cat food, so I have to make my own.  I have one cat with extremely long fingers and I do mean fingers.  One cat insists on coming on walks with my dog.  One cat is a dwarf because it was very sick during its developmental stage.

So there you haven’t it.  I make as much as a VCR instruction manual.  But these are the things that make me who I am and are the things have a tendency of working their way into my stories.

Now you know a little bit about me, let’s hear a bit about you.  Give me a fun fact or two.

Oddly yours,
Simon Wood
PS: I have an article on short story writing in the December issue of Writer’s Digest.

Under the Knife (Part 2)

The story so far.  I’m just about to have an operation when days before, I overhear my doctor having a crisis of faith, which leads me to feel the same way…

I had a pre-op appointment with Dr. Smith the following week. He seemed in fine spirits and didn’t mention seeing us at the restaurant. While he spoke, all I could think about were the cracks that lay beneath this man’s professional veneer. Could he keep them covered up or would they burst through at the worst possible occasion? Namely, when he was operating on me?

Whatever his personal problems were, Dr. Smith was able to separate them from his professional responsibilities. Still, I left his office with a bad case of the heebie-jeebies.

Against my better judgment, I went through with the surgery. Julie dropped me off at the hospital at an ungodly hour. She smiled and left me standing there. Dread similar to those first-day-at-school nerves filled me. I checked in and they snapped a plastic bracelet around my wrist. It was obviously there to make identification easy if everything went pear-shaped.

The admissions clerk pointed me in the direction of the ward where I needed to check in. I wandered along silent corridors, seemingly walking a distance much larger than the building’s dimensions. I never saw a soul. I expected to find a lab marked “Human Experiments.”

Eventually, having walked past it twice, I found my ward. The ward had half a dozen or so people in beds, some asleep, some not. The nurse told me to change. Of course, I had to wear the usual “show my arse to the world” gown, but they gave me some socks with grippy soles that I got to keep, so that made up for flash shots of my arse for anyone too curious. One guy walked by and I swear he was trying to smuggle a bear into the hospital, judging by the thicket of hair squirting from the rear of his hospital johnny.

On several occasions, a doctor or nurse came by to ask me what I was having done, which I found disconcerting. Didn’t they know? Well, to make doubly sure, a nurse came by and wrote “YES” on the knee to be operated on with a big black magic marker. Ah, HMOs…

Dr. Smith checked in with me and introduced me to the anesthesiologist — a serious Asian guy with a minimal command of English. When we’d spoken on the phone a few days earlier, he’d asked me to breathe for him. I’d hoped this was for medical reasons. If it wasn’t, I should have been paid.

The anesthesiologist said he needed to examine me before putting me under. He immediately realized that he didn’t have his stethoscope. Dr. Smith offered the loan of his, but the anesthesiologist turned it down. He asked me to breathe in and out a couple of times (yes, back to the breathing again). I should point out that he never came closer to me than 10 feet. After I breathed for him, he said, “That sounds okay.” Ah, HMOs…

After a couple of hours of sitting in bed, trying to ignore the ticking clock — aren’t hospital beds narrow? — they finally wheeled me down to the morgue-cold operating theater. Masked people, happy to see me (probably because my insurance approval came through), welcomed me into the operating theater. I clambered onto the even narrower operating table that was no wider than my body, with armrests out at ninety-degree angles. When they strapped me down, I must have looked very Christ-like, albeit lying down.

The anesthesiologist pounced on me. He wanted a needle in my arm before the ABBA track finished on the CD player. By the way, they did promise that ABBA would be replaced with classical music during my surgery, but for some strange reason I kept humming Gimme, gimme, gimme a man after midnight after I left the hospital.

The best bit came when one of the nurses said I could have a blanket if I was cold. I was, so I did. The lovely lady swaddled me in two blankets that were toasty warm from some blanket oven somewhere. I felt like the Pillsbury Dough Boy, but this didn’t last long.

The drip needle punctured the back of my hand and wormed its way into my vein. Its invasive touch was lost the moment the ice-cold fluid from the drip crept through my arm like a steel rod. My warm blanket nurse distracted me with some kindly words while sticking vital sign monitors to my nervous body. My other nurse exposed my leg to be operated on and took one of my grippy socks. I told him I wanted that back. The blanket nurse said that the anesthesiologist was giving me something to relax me. As she told me this, I lost control of my eyes. They kept rolling back. I tried to focus on her face and what she was saying, but at some point I blew her off and lapsed into unconsciousness.

The time travel section of my experience began. I woke up in the recovery room with another nurse next to me. She told me that everything had gone well. I checked out a wall clock. A couple of hours had passed. I would have sworn I was out less than 10 minutes. The nurse said something else, but I fell asleep again, activating my time travel hospital bed. When I woke up the next time, it was after one p.m. I was back in the hospital ward where I’d started, with my original nurses. The nurses explained some other things to me and gave me my time traveler’s meal: graham crackers and orange juice. Time fast-forwarded another 30 minutes. Then it was time to go. I remember my clothes being given to me but I don’t remember dressing. I hope no one took advantage of me.

If they did, I hope they call.

Whatever problems my doctor had, I have to admit he did a first class job. His stitching was neat and my recovery was swift.

But there was some bad news. They found my ACL (a ligament with a lot of vowels) was also torn, which means I face another op, a fairly major one. Enter the creepy stuff. I thought the doctor could fix it with some medical bondo and a staple gun or some such — but oh, no. To fix it, he has to graft ligament to it from somewhere else on my body or use a synthetic ligament or — wait for it — he can graft bone and ligament from a cadaver. Nice. I discussed my options with Dr. Smith. All the options sounded unpleasant. I wasn’t wild about fixing my knee with dead dude parts. Julie is trying to convince me to go with the cadaver option, because there may be a story in it. I’ll think about it…

As a footnote to this story, Dr. Smith left the hospital to open his own practice shortly after operating on me. Before the practice reached its first anniversary, I received a letter saying he was moving away. He recommended another doctor for further treatments. All said and done, I liked Dr. Smith. He was a nice guy and I trusted him, in spite of his problems. Now that it looks as if I need the second procedure, I wish he was still around to cut me.

Yours in one piece,
Simon Wood
PS: Thanks to everyone who sent kind messages about the Anthony win.

Under the Knife (Part 1)

I’m all always a little nervous around doctors…this gave me good reason…

Carrying on from my fall off the side of a mountain in New Zealand, I took a trip to an orthopedic surgeon to check out my damaged knee. I hadn’t been impressed with my primary care physician’s initial assessment to knock back the Motrin like it was going out of fashion, so I looked forward to a second opinion. Dr. Smith ordered an MRI. I spent a nice couple of hours inside a seven-foot-high electromagnetic donut that clanged like someone inside was trying to escape from within. I returned to Dr. Smith’s office for the results.

“Operate?” I echoed, hoping I’d misheard.

“Yes, operate,” Dr. Smith confirmed. “It’ll be purely an outpatient affair. Repairing a torn meniscus is commonplace. Nothing to worry about.”

Easy for him to say, he wasn’t being operated on. Okay, I know how wimpy that sounds, but I’d never gone under the knife before. For over 30 years, I’d managed to bend but never break anything that required anyone to check under the hood, as it were.

Dr. Smith must have seen the look on my face. He did his best to reassure me. He blew it when he raised the subject of risks—namely, the risks associated with the anesthetic.

“One in a thousand people react severely to anesthetic,” he said nonchalantly.

One in a thousand? Excuse me, but that doesn’t sound like great odds. I had visions of a deli counter ticket dispenser in the operating theater. I’d pull a ticket and hand it to the anesthesiologist and hear him cry, “Now, serving 1000. Stay sharp everyone, this one is going to be tricky.”

I quizzed the doctor on the whole “one in a thousand” matter. He tried to play down the death and vegetative state issues. I think he locked the door to his office at this point.

He ended the consultation with, “Of course, the decision to do this is yours.”

I talked the matter over with my wife. Julie said I had to have the op, but that’s Julie. She’s a scientist and she’s into this crap. I’m an engineer and I know how easy it is to break delicate machines. She justified the operation by joking that she wasn’t going to lift me off any mountains again. I mentioned the one-in-a-thousand thing and she proceeded to recount how she’d woken up during surgery and the doctors had to hit her with enough gas to floor an elephant to get her back to sleep. Apparently, she has a high tolerance to anesthetics. This did nothing to comfort me. I think I’d lost all color from my face at that point.

“Look, you’re worrying about nothing. Now, where’s your life insurance policy?”

Ha-bloody-ha.

Seeing as I hadn’t been able to kneel down in nearly two years, I agreed to the procedure.

As the days counted down to the surgery, I tried not to worry about it. I met with Dr. Smith and my primary care physician to ensure I was in good enough health to have the surgery. They gave me the green light. I was well enough to be sick.

In the last few days before the operation, Julie took me out to dinner. A last meal, if you will. We sat in a secluded booth and had a nice meal. We talked about all the usual daily stuff and whether Julie would remarry if things didn’t go well.

Our attention wandered to the person in the booth next to us. Some guy was pouring out his life story to a friend over a beer and steak. He recounted how his life was essentially in the shitter. He had no lust for life or his career and was contemplating throwing in the towel and doing something else. This overheard conversation put things into perspective for me. There are greater things to worry about in life. If you have your health, you have something. As Julie paid the check, I glanced back at the booth containing this man on the edge. I wanted to know who this person was.

There sat my surgeon, Dr. Smith, the man who was going to cut my knee open with a scalpel.

My soul drained out through my ankles. I quickly hustled Julie out of the restaurant before he saw us. I didn’t want him knowing that I knew his state of mind.

To be continued next week…

Yours in pieces,
Simon Wood
PS: I’m in Alaska for Bouchercon.  I hope it’s not too cold.

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