If I Were a Starfleet Captain

If I were a Starfleet captain, I would employ a strict policy of avoiding all unusual and/or unexplained phenomena. Temporal rifts, subspace distortions, collapsing stars, expanding black holes, folds in space, a stitch in time – whenever one of these appears, I will order my crew to point the ship 180 degrees away from it and depart at a brisk speed of Warp 5. Due to forward-thinking actions such as this, I anticipate a longer, happier life for myself and all my crew.

If I were a Starfleet captain, I would listen very carefully to any advice my first officer has to give. If I am ever wrong, he will be the one to tell me so.

If I were a Starfleet captain, I would turn the lights in Ten Forward all the way up. I would also replace unnaturally-colored drinks that appear to be foreign substances with ice cream sundaes. This would help to lift the gloomy atmosphere that too often pervades Ten Forward.

If I were a Starfleet captain, I would permanently shut down the holodeck. As I would explain to the crew, the holodeck encourages unhealthy inclinations, anti-social tendencies, denial, and extended unnecessary, pretentious scenes. Additionally, the holodeck will invariably go wrong, not to mention weird, and further encourage disconnection from reality. For the crew’s mental and physical well-being, the holodeck will be replaced by a gym, library, coffee shop, and chapel.

If I were a Starfleet captain, I would disassemble the self-destruct mechanism. There is no point.

If I were a Starfleet captain, I would not assure obviously hostile persons that I mean them no harm. For one thing, the fact that they are firing on my ship, menacing my officers with a weapon, or commandeering the ship’s computer indicates that they do not care. For another thing, if they do not very shortly cease to fire, menace, or commandeer, I will mean them harm.

If I were a Starfleet captain, I would install seat belts at every station on the bridge. I would also install seats for those officers who, for reasons undisclosed, always have to stand up. Their jobs are perfectly sedentary in nature and will, from a sitting position, be performed with equal efficiency, greater happiness, and (due to the new seat belts) increased safety.

If I were a Starfleet captain, I would launch an inquiry into what, exactly, replicator food is and where it comes from. Nothing just appears out of nowhere.

If I were a Starfleet captain, and my ship unexpectedly crossed paths with eccentric scientists, superficially harmless wanderers, or mysterious aliens traveling alone, I would immediately order them clapped into the brig and their crafts impounded. They get you every time.

If I were a Starfleet captain, I would memorize the Prime Directive so that I can quote it just before disregarding it.

If I were a Starfleet captain, I would memorize the following words and phrases: “Red alert;” “Divert power to the shields;” “Compensate;” “Evasive maneuvers pattern [random letter of the Greek alphabet];” “Damage report;” “Launch the torpedoes;” “Fire;” and “Retreat.” This would prepare me to meet any battle situation.

If I were a Starfleet captain, I would ban the color red from all uniforms save those worn by the most senior officers. In a related initiative, I would make it a policy to send only prominent deck officers into dangerous or mysterious off-ship situations. They always come back.

If I were a Starfleet captain, and any member of my crew began to exhibit classic and incontrovertible signs of insanity, I would immediately consider that he is suffering some disease unknown to medical science, that he is being tampered with by an alien, that he is an alien, that he recently arrived from another time-space continuum. I will continue to consider all these things even in the face of a total lack of physical, statistical, and anecdotal evidence. Finally, I will even consider that he is actually insane, just in case they try to trick us.

If I were a Starfleet captain, I would lead the safest, happiest, most well-adjusted crew in Starfleet.

From the Office of Cooking Experiments

The Office of Cooking Experiments – lately released from the kitchen, which is why there is flour in our hair – is pleased to once again offer our cooking wisdom to you, the amateur cook who frankly needs it. We get our wisdom the old-fashioned way, through experience. We also get our experience the old-fashioned way, through lack of wisdom. “We make mistakes so you don’t have to,” that’s our motto.

Today’s topic is safety. Safety is, of course, of first and greatest importance, and we wish we had thought of it before now. On the expectation that it is not too late, we now present safety tips to be observed while you are also observing our cooking tips. We preface these tips with a brief reminder, sprung from sincere concern and a desire to protect: We are not legally liable for anything.

And now, fellow cooks, the tips:

When you cook, make sure the smoke alarm is turned off. Smoke alarms tend to be sensitive contraptions, liable to go off if you broil chicken or fry potatoes or even just boil water. Consequently, smoke alarms are always crying wolf (metaphorically speaking), and the members of your household become conditioned to roll their eyes in annoyance whenever they hear the smoke alarm go off. This is unsafe. You don’t want your loved ones assuming, whenever the smoke alarm sounds, that you are merely cooking. You want them assuming that something may be wrong. And if those two are the same in your household, we clarify: “something wrong to the point of maybe involving the fire department.”

EXCEPTION: This advice is predicated on the assumption that you remain in the kitchen. If you are one of those cooks who routinely leave to check the mailbox, do laundry, find a book, nap, etc., then you should definitely leave the smoke alarm on. It will signal you when it is time – high time, in fact – to be heading back.

Remain vigilant, spatula in hand, whenever broiling something that requires only a few minutes to roast. We are thinking of pecans, for example, or granola. Remember: If it is done at seven minutes, it is hopelessly burnt at eleven minutes, and at fifteen minutes it bursts into flames.

If, while you are boiling chicken, a flame starts in the burner, do not attempt to put it out by covering the burner with the lid that was on the pot. Having been on the pot, that lid is now splattered with chicken grease as well as water. Have you ever seen what flames do when exposed to grease? Shoom.

Before carrying around a heavy marble rolling pin, ensure that the handle is fully intact. If the handle is not intact, it may suddenly break, and the marble rolling pin will with unerring accuracy land on your foot. If you are lucky, no bone will break; rather, your skin will turn several impressive and unnatural shades, and your foot will be sore for weeks. And if this happens on Christmas, particularly that Christmas where you were already nursing a moderate-to-severe cold, your Christmas will be pretty much over; all that is left, after you finish whatever you needed the stupid rolling pin for in the first place, is to go to bed.

But enough with bitter memories. Our point is that you should remain safe in all your adventures in cookery, and this requires simple precautions and, in certain crucial moments, quick thinking. And if a speedy exit is ever absolutely necessary, the back door is always located very near the stove.

From the Office of Cooking Experiments

The Office of Cooking Experiments, in its ongoing quest to save amateur cooks from themselves, is pleased to present the latest installment of our cooking guide, tentatively titled Been There, Cooked That. We are also considering Been There, Done That, Sorry to Say. Or maybe just Sorry. One-word titles are all the rage, and Sorry is usually what we say after our experiments. Once or twice we’ve even had to say it to the fire department. We make mistakes so you don’t have to, that’s our motto.

Where were we? Ah, yes. The cooking guide. First of all, amateur cooks …

Crockpots are good; crockpots are our friends. What’s so great about crockpots, you ask? We’ll tell you: You just throw the stuff in and leave. The food cooks itself. Actually, the crockpot cooks it, but in practical experience, there is no difference. With crockpots, you can forget for whole hours that you are cooking and nothing will be the worse for it. This is not true when you are using the stove or the oven, as the fire department made clear to us.

– Caveat: The pitfall of this is that crockpots cook slowly; we believe this is why some people call them “slow-cookers”. Sometimes crockpots cook too slowly. When this happens, and for some reason you cannot wait, such as the natives are rioting, you can pull out the crockpot and finish the food in the oven.

– Caveat on the Caveat: If you do this, do not put the lid of the crockpot into the oven. The handle may melt and drip over the food, and that could ruin it.

A little peppermint extract goes a long way. The good news is that those tiny little bottles of extract are a better value than they look. The bad news is that if you don’t know this and you dump half the bottle into your hot chocolate, your hot chocolate will have the refreshing minty taste of mouth wash. And the little bottle of extract will be a bad value after all.

Baker’s chocolate is unsweetened. This was one of the greatest disappointments of our experiments, even worse than the time we destroyed an entire dish of chicken with red pepper. Chicken is, after all, just chicken, but chocolate is chocolate. And chocolate should be sweet. Baker’s chocolate looks like it should be so good, like Godiva or some expensive chocolate with an Italian name. But no. Instead, biting into one of those perfect squares of chocolate, you get …

No. We cannot contemplate it.

You, the amateur cook, will also grow sadder and wiser in the ways of the kitchen. But like us, you will also learn what not to do, until finally you no longer have to say sorry to your family, or at any rate to the fire department.

Help Wanted, Again

Help Wanted
Up-and-Coming Hero Seeks Wise Old Mentor

Qualifications: Applicants must have broad experience and knowledge, particularly of the Evil that threatens all our lives. Persistence, commitment, and keen perception skills required.

Applicants must be wise, learned in arcane yet extremely relevant knowledge, and have a store of aphorisms – or else be able to come up with apt aphorism-like remarks on the spot. Preference given to those who know something vital about me that I do not yet know myself; also to those who can predict the future.

All applicants are required to have outstanding teaching skills, including outside the traditional classroom environment. Sinister yet compelling warnings, ambush tests, and on-the-job training all desired. Teaching methods that involve physical pain and mortal danger to the student are also acceptable. I am, after all, an up-and-coming hero.

Applicants must be willing and able to guide me onto the path of my True Destiny, even if I initially resist.

Applicants must be older than I am.

All applicants must understand that they will eventually have to absent themselves so that I may experience horrible dangers with no way out, and so come into my own and be truly heroic. Death, though the normal method of leaving, is not required. Any way that upholds the applicant’s status as Mentor, and my status as Hero, is permissible.

Benefits: Being a Wise Mentor.

To Apply: No application necessary. Interviews, furthermore, will not be held, because any Wise Mentor who would submit to being interviewed by an up-and-coming hero is obviously in need of mentoring himself. If interested in the position, simply find me and try to claim it. Preference goes to those who initiate the meeting by rescuing me from certain death, who reveal various dark secrets, or who carry or bestow an item of obvious mythical quality, such as a light-sword, a wizard’s staff, or any kind of magic jewelry.

From the Office of Cooking Experiments

We at the Office of Cooking Experiments are proud to once again offer you, the home cook, the benefit of our experience and knowledge. “We make mistakes so you don’t have to” is our motto. So read on, cooks of America, and do as we say, not as we did.

Always cook from a recipe. That way, nothing is ever your fault. You can always blame the recipe, like so:
I don’t know why it’s taking so long. The recipe said half an hour and it’s already been in the oven forty-five minutes.
I wasn’t sure about the amount of salt, but it’s what the recipe said.
The combination of anchovies and peanut butter sounded weird, but the recipe had a four-star rating.

When making meatloaf, you should add either oatmeal or bread torn into pieces. We prefer oatmeal. It’s easier.

Everything needs salt. You wonder why this is, why even chocolate cake and strawberry lemon zest mousse need salt? We wonder, too. We don’t understand it. But put the salt in, like the recipe says.

Do not use celery. There is no purpose to celery, except to maybe exercise your jaw muscles. We have left the celery out of many, many recipes that called for it and never noticed the difference.

Do not try to make any recipe with more than two ingredients you have never heard of.

If a recipe calls for buttermilk, you can buy the buttermilk at the grocery store, or you can whip up an easy substitute, taking normal milk and mixing in one tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice for every cup of milk. Or you could take the normal milk and just pour it right in. We at the Office of Cooking Experiments project that adding vinegar or lemon juice will make the milk sour, and who needs sour milk? We recall the old Irish song about drinking buttermilk through the week, and we judge this to be one of the reasons so many of the Irish ended up in America. There are many Irish-Americans, but you’ll notice that none of them drink buttermilk through the week.

The experienced cook evaluates recipes for three things: flavor, cost, and ease of preparation. As a general rule, each one comes at some cost to the others.

Review: Greetings From the Flipside

Hope Landon has had a hard time. When she was a little girl, her father disappeared mysteriously; when she was a teenager, her unique mother left her wondering if it was possible to drop dead from cringing too often. As an adult, she’s been stuck in the nothing-town Poughkeepsie. And now, just when she thinks she’s about to escape her life, her fiance jilts her on her wedding day.

Then somebody steals her car. There’s a hospital involved soon enough.

And Hope is about ready to give up on hope.

Greetings From the Flipside is the second collaboration between Rene Gutteridge and Cheryl McKay. I read their novel Never the Bride a few years ago and loved it. So as soon as I heard about Greetings From the Flipside, I wanted to read it.

There’s a lot of humor in this novel, as I had hoped; Hope is an entertaining narrator, and there are many funny moments. At the same time, an undercurrent of seriousness flows through the story. The characters seem, most of them, to be struggling.

Greetings From the Flipside has an unconventional structure: The beginning and ending chapters are in the third-person past tense, but the majority of the chapters only begin that way; then they flip to first-person present tense.

Here I am going to plunge into what I believe, after looking at the reviews, is the most controversial part of the book. I think the spoilers are light, but those who want to be spoiler-free should probably skip to the end of the review. Now, here we go:

Hope spends the majority of the book in a coma, and the third-person narrative at the chapters’ beginning takes place in what we call the real world, and the first-person narrative is the dream-world of Hope’s coma. Briefly, the main character spends most of the story unconscious. Some people disliked this.

I think it worked, and for several reasons. Due to the medical fact that comatose people can have some awareness of what is happening around them – and perhaps also to the suggestion of another realm – the two worlds do interact. The same drama plays out in each of them. Hope’s adventures, in one sense, never happened, but the central question of the story – Will she come back? – was answered in them.

Another reason it worked is that the authors made it fun. Sometimes it was funny to see the real world breaking into Hope’s dreams; sometimes it had the fun of a mystery. (I knew those random letters added up to something.) I came to look for any cross between the real world and the coma-world; their overlap fascinated me.

The novel’s overall theme is one of hope: Jake holding onto hope, though he sometimes doubted, and Hope ready to bid a snarky good-bye to hope, although she had, deep down, a scrap she couldn’t let go. True and false hope both take their turns on the stage.

Greetings From the Flipside executes a unique concept with deftness, all the while mixing its serious questions with humor. The style is engaging, the writing is skillful, and the characters are sympathetic – altogether an original and compelling romance.

From the Office of Cooking Experiments

We at the Office of Cooking Experiments (motto: “We make mistakes so you don’t have to”) have compiled a helpful cooking guide for all of you who always wanted to cook but never could find the spatula. These are some insider hints, some tips to get you started:

Stir in the flour gradually – yes, gradually; it really does make a difference.

What is the difference between baking soda and baking powder? Whether or not your cookies get eaten, sometimes.

Red pepper is lethal.

Everything your mother ever told you about separating egg whites is true.

Read the labels of everything you put in, before you put it in. Cinnamon and cummin bottles look remarkably similar, but if you put cummin on the frosted cinnamon breakfast rolls, someone is going to notice.

The bottom of the pan is always hot.

Bacon goes from “nearly done” to “done” in exactly seven seconds.

Deliciously seasoned, tenderly cooked meats can be easily had by calling your local deli. For home-cooked meals, salt the meat and stick it in the oven or the crockpot, which is our personal favorite. We forget for hours running that we are cooking anything.

When boiling vegetables, do not let the water boil all away, or your vegetables will burn.

If you read the labels on spice bottles – put there by the manufacturers, we note – they will tell you that the spice you are holding in your hand is good for everything, except maybe ice cream. Do not believe this. In reality, spices are color-coded. Green spices, such as basil and oregano, go with red foods, like spaghetti and lasagna. Paler spices, like ground mustard and garlic powder, go with lighter foods, such as noodles and macaroni and cheese. Brown spices – cinnamon, cloves, and allspice – go with sweet foods, such as pie, cakes, and the breakfast rolls we mentioned before.

“Cream of tartar” is not good for fish. We don’t know what it is good for, but it’s not fish.

Nothing is as easy as the cooking books make out.

Help Wanted

Help Wanted
Up-and-Coming Villain Seeks Competent Help

Qualifications: Applicants must be committed individuals willing to invest themselves completely in world-changing enterprise. Intelligence, drive, and real-world skills required.

All applicants will be tested for critical thinking skills. Example question: If you are pursuing an escaped hero, and you pass by trees, pillars, large boulders, unlocked closets, etc., do you think it possible he would try to hide in one of them? Discuss.

All applicants must be capable of understanding and obeying simple orders. For example, “No one is allowed to see the prisoner” means that no one – literally no one – is allowed to see the prisoner. No matter what the prisoner tells you.

All applicants will be given weapons and required to demonstrate basic competence with them. If you fire at a six-foot-tall target eight feet away and miss, the interview will immediately be terminated.

Applicants shall be void of those pangs of conscience that cause evil henchmen to leave vital jobs unfinished.

All applicants shall understand that I am, and will always be, smarter and more powerful than they are.

Benefits: Benefits include health insurance, new wardrobe provided at company expense, opportunities to plunder, and chance to be in at the ground-floor of a world empire. Also the privilege of seeing a mastermind at work.

Positions Available: Positions vary from minion to trusted lieutenant. Each will be rewarded on the basis of applicant’s merit.

If interested, send application to JohnSmith@villainyplanning.com. Interviewees will be conducted, blindfolded, to an undisclosed location.

First Plunge

I heard of him a long time ago. I often saw him quoted – sometimes by C. S. Lewis. Writers and reviewers praised him as a man of imagination, an artist who brought together the beautiful, the fantastical, and the spiritual. I saw him ranked with C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, one of the godfathers of Christian speculative fiction. But I never bothered with his work myself.

Then, while browsing a library shelf for books for my younger sisters, I saw it: The Complete Fairy Tales, by George MacDonald. I’d heard good things about MacDonald. I liked fairy tales. I picked the book up.

Now I can hold up my head among my fellow SF fans: I have read George MacDonald. My first taste was The Light Princess. This fairy tale begins, as is traditional, with a king and queen having a baby. In writing the invitations to her christening, the king forgot the Princess Makemnoit – which was “awkward”, the narrator tells us, because she was his sister, and “imprudent”, because she was a witch.

So – well, you all know. The witch went to the christening anyway and got revenge for the slight by putting a spell on the child. By the spell she deprived the princess of all her gravity – both in body and in soul.

I wasn’t surprised that MacDonald used the old formula: an evil witch, an enchanted princess, a brave prince. That he made an ingenuous story with it did not surprise me, either. What did was that he told the fairy tale with a sense of humor and even a sense of parody.

The greatest example of MacDonald’s parody was the metaphysicians Hum-Drum and Kopy-Keck. But often it flashes through in smaller ways. He uses the old trope of provoking the witch by not inviting her, and in that very act observes, “Of course somebody was forgotten. Now it does not generally matter if somebody is forgotten, only you must mind who.”

The humor manifests itself in several ways. One of these is puns. George MacDonald has often been called a great writer, and puns have often been called the lowest form of humor, so this seems a little odd –  even if MacDonald’s puns are sometimes so clever they cannot be understood without footnotes.

Another manifestation is asides that are half humor and half (indicting) social commentary. In telling how the king forgot his disinherited sister, MacDonald writes, “But poor relations don’t do anything to keep you in mind of them. Why don’t they? The king could not see into the garret she lived in, could he?”

And later, when the prince “lost sight of his retinue in a great forest”: “These forests are very useful in delivering princes from their courtiers, like a sieve that keeps back the bran. Then the princes get away to follow their fortunes. In this they have the advantage of the princesses, who are forced to marry before they have had a bit of fun. I wish our princesses got lost in a forest sometimes.”

Neither does MacDonald fail to draw out the humor – and fun – involved in having a princess with no gravity. He brings out, too, the loss and misfortune of it. In one passage, he tells of the Light Princess that “she would laugh like the very spirit of fun; only in her laugh there was something missing. What it was, I find myself unable to describe. I think it was a certain tone, depending upon the possibility of sorrow – morbidezza, perhaps. She never smiled.”

I have been enjoying my first plunge into the stories of George MacDonald. They make me want to read more fairy tales. They make me want to write some.