Sunday, December 25, 2016

Pondering the Christmas Story

I've had a number of thoughts this Christmas, and given the spirit of season, I felt it appropriate to publicly share what I've come to learn.

When we consider the Christmas story and what happened in Bethlehem 2000 years ago, the story we hear today is romanticized quite a bit.  I think the reality of the events were much more challenging, and looking a little deeper at things it strikes me that this was a tale of considerable hardship.


I can't imagine what this would have been like for Mary.  I think her situation is summed up best with her words, "How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?"  In today's time we may not think an un-wed pregnancy it a serious thing, but to those of Jesus's day it was an act of unspeakable shame.

How would Mary explain this to her parents?  Everyone would have a lot of tough questions, and Mary wouldn't have any answers.  We know from the story in Luke that Mary arose and went "with haste" to visit her cousin Elizabeth (who at the time was six months pregnant with John).  She stayed with Elizabeth for three months.  If she wasn't showing by the time she got back, she wouldn't have long before she had to confront her parents and let them in on her secret.

I can imagine Mary's news caused quite a scandal.  I imagine there was a lot of yelling, a lot of doors slamming in anger, a lot of tears, and a whole lot of heartbreak.  The question on everyone's mind would be, who is the father? I think Mary would have tried to deny that Joseph had any part in this, but who would believe her?  If the father wasn't Joseph, who could it be?

I'm going to assume that Mary's family kept this all hush-hush, and discretely reached out to Joseph's family.  If it were my daughter, that's what I would do, regardless of the situation.


I find it quite a bit easier to put myself in Joseph's place.  I can relate to being a young guy, being engaged, and being giddy with love for someone, and really really looking forward to the day we get married and I can take her as my wife.

I'd have been on cloud 9.

Where was Joseph when he heard the news?  Was he just stopping by Mary's house for a visit?  Or did he hear it though the grapevine?  Either way, he'd have been crushed.  If I were in his place, I would have been deeply hurt, and I would have been supremely ticked.

I imagine sooner or later he would have to face down Mary's parents.  I couldn't imagine walking into their house with a pall of suspicion hanging over me like that.  I couldn't imagine facing their accusing stares, and trying to deny that I had any part in this matter.  I'd be horrified.  The engagement would be off, of course.  It's not my child.  There'd be a lot of tense words on both sides and in the end I'd leave upset, wanting desperately to get away and find somewhere private where I could bawl my eyes out.

And then came the dream.

We're so used to glossing over this part, and we don't really give it much thought.  Things get a little personal here for me.  I've had dreams before.  I've never been visited by an angel, but I know what it's like to wake up and feel completely blown away by what I've seen.  The first thought that goes through your mind is, was that real?  The second thing that goes through your mind is, did it truly come from God?  I can speculate a whole lot of other stuff that must have gone through Joseph's mind, but sooner or later it would get to the point where he had to do something.  Does he ignore it?  Does he trust it?  What was he going to do?  Yeah, I've been there.

You see, Joseph's problem just got a whole lot bigger.  Before this dream, he'd planned to put this whole matter to rest privately.  The gospel of Matthew says that Joseph didn't want to make a big spectacle of things.  Most people agree that this demonstrates how Joseph must have loved Mary.  Regardless, the engagement would be over, and Joseph would move on.  In a few years he'd find another girl and start all over.

But now?  Joseph had a huge choice.  Does he trust the dream?  Because if he marries this girl, everyone is going to think one of two things.  They're either going to think, well of course the baby is Joseph's, we weren't born yesterday, you know?  Shame on you!  Either that, or they're going to think, Joseph, you foolish schmuck!  She's been two-timing you and now she's got to pay the price.  You should leave her to her fate!

I don't know much about the circumstances of Jewish marriage customs.  I'm going to assume that since Joseph had the opportunity to annul the divorce privately that the matter had been kept quiet.  What I'm also going to assume is that Joseph went through a great deal of soul-wrenching.  Getting married is a pretty wonderful thing, but marrying a woman who's preggers with someone else's child is quite another.

I imagine Joseph's family was pretty shocked when he told them what he planned, and why, especially considering how this could look.  It's not easy to trust a dream.  Again, personal experience.  People's first reaction is to think you've gone off the rails.  Then they start questioning every little thing, trying to understand, or second-guessing the way you interpret it.  You end up feeling stupid, and wishing you hadn't said anything and just kept the whole thing to yourself.

And then there's the part where you have to follow through with what the Lord told you to do, and endure years and years of second guessing your own actions, and wondering why things had to be this way, and wondering when or if you were going to see the things come true that the Lord had told you.  It takes a lot of faith and a lot of internal strength, especially when no one has a reason to believe you.


The account in the New Testament of Jesus's birth is agonizingly short on details.  A thought came to me as I was writing this that perhaps God made sure the details were sparse so that the peoples of each culture that read it could flesh out the story in their own way and liken it to them.

The biggest question on my mind, though, is why were Mary and Joseph alone?  At least we assume they were alone.  Had they been disowned?  In today's day we find it unthinkable that Mary, being so far along, would have been completely un-accompanied by family.  I find it unthinkable that Joseph, being of the lineage of King David, and journeying to the city of David would have been unable to find family to put him up and make his wife comfortable.

We just don't know.

For me, this situation would have been heartbreaking.  I've seen my wife pushed to the very edge, and I've had to pick her up and carry her along through life's trials.  I know what it's like to raise a family, starting from nothing.  I can't imagine how it must have been for them.  I imagine that in Joseph's position there are many times when I would have thought the situation seemed hopeless.

In my life I've come to trust the Lord that he always opens up a way.  That's pretty much all you can do.  Trust that God knows your troubles and that if you approach him in prayer he will help you find a way to make things work out.  I'm reminded of the words to a song by Casting Crowns, called Just Be Held:

So when you're on your knees and answers seem so far away
You're not alone, stop holding on and just be held
Your world's not falling apart, it's falling into place
I'm on the throne, stop holding on and just be held
Just be held, just be held
It's amazing to think that the One who rules heaven and earth actually cares about my problems, however small, and has time to answer my prayers.

Merry Christmas, and God bless you!

Monday, October 31, 2016

Election Year Lingo

Every election year, and especially during presidential elections, I find myself thinking, "Oh, yeah, I remember that word."  It's like running into an old friend at the supermarket and catching up.  Then I'll think, "Such an awesome word, I need to use it more."

And then November comes and goes, and with it goes all the bile, the invective, the hyperbole, and the pugilistic rhetoric.  It disipates like a toxic fog after a good rain, and these words fade from memory only to be re-born in my vocabulary in another four years.

So, here it is, Tom's list of big pretentious words, specially crafted for the election year:

BALKANIZED – When a large group of people who were once united becomes separated into factions that are hostile to one and other.

CAUCUS – A citizen’s meeting of members of a political party, for the purpose of choosing delegates to represent them at a larger convention.

DELEGATE – A person who gets elected by a group of people to go and vote for them.

DEMOCRACY – A system of government where EVERYONE votes on all decisions.  The US is NOT a democracy, it’s a republic.

DEMAGOGUE – A political leader who makes use of popular prejudices, or false claims and promises, or augments based on emotion rather than reason, in order to gain power.

DOGMA – (Also, dogmatic) An authoritative principle, belief or statement of opinion, especially one considered to be absolutely true and indisputable, regardless of evidence or without evidence to support it.  Often, political arguments which are largely propped up solely by religious belief.

FACTION – A sub-group belonging to any larger group of people, whose common goals or beliefs differ from those of the larger group.

HISTRIONICS – Behavior that is overly emotional or dramatic.

HUBRIS – Excessively (often foolishly) prideful

HYPERBOLE – Any language that is extravagantly exaggerated.

IN-FIGHTING – Bickering or quarreling between two or more factions with a much larger group, which would normally be united. (e.g.: “political in-fighting within the Nationalist party).

INCUMBENT – The candidate who is up for re-election (i.e.: the guy/gal currently in office)

INVECTIVE – Abusive speech, often laden with profanity.

OLIGARCHY – Government by the few.  Any form of government where a small group exercises un-checked control.

OSTENSIBLE – Anything done to show off for the sake of appearance, but really has a different underlying motive.

PLURALITY – A winning vote that is more than all other votes, but constitutes less than 50%.  Any winning vote that is not a majority vote.

POLEMICS – A strong written or spoken attack against someone else's opinions, beliefs, practices, etc.

PONTIFICATION – To express one’s position or opinions dogmatically and pompously as if they were absolutely correct.  To speak in a patronizing, supercilious or pompous manner, especially at length.

PUGILISTIC – Having a fighting quality (from PUGILISM, i.e., boxing)

RECALCITRANT – Stubbornly defiant of authority.

REFERENDUM – A direct popular vote on a proposed law or constitutional amendment.  Figuratively, popular a vote of approval or disapproval for a political philosophy or policy.

REPUDIATION – The act of refusing to accept.

REPUBLIC – A system of government like a democracy, but where large numbers of people elect representatives to go and vote and make decisions for them.

RHETORIC - language that is intended to influence people and that may not be honest or reasonable

SATIRE – Language that exaggerates an idea, person, government, or other group of people, and mocks in a humorous way, and portrays it as foolish, weak, ineffective, bad, etc.

SCAPEGOAT – A person or group of people who gets unfairly blamed for something that others have done

SHIBBOLETH – Words or sayings used by members of a party to identify themselves as supportive of a given cause, and often regarded by non-party members as empty of real meaning.  (e.g.: “pro-choice”, or “big government”)

TRUCULENT – Aggressively self-assertive; beligerent; combative.

VITRIOLIC – Extremely bitter or crossive in quality, especially virulence in feeling or speech.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Medieval Gems for Writers: Wearing a Sword on Your Back

The digital watch is not period.
I’ve recently found a Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) group to practice with. They study techniques with the two-handed longsword, and the hand-and-a-half (AKA "bastard") longsword.  One day at practice, we got into a discussion about how practical it was to wear a longsword on your back like you see in movies and in video games.  As it turns out, I have some real-world experience with this. 

A few years back, I put together a costume for Halloween and Salt Lake Comic Con (and any other excuse I could find to nerd up).  I have a real two-handed longsword with a scabbard and a belt that can be used as a baldric.  I’ve even got a riveted chain-mail shirt for that extra touch.

Wearing the sword on your side gets awkward.  It swings around a lot.  Sitting down is always an adventure, going down stairs requires caution, and when walking through crowds of people you're always afraid of bumping someone.  It’s something you only want to wear if you’re going to a fight.

To get it out of the way, I found that strapping it onto my back works rather well.

Now I can sit with it, run with it, go down stairs with it, and I can walk through crowds and busy marketplaces without it banging into things.  This arrangement works really well, with one big problem. 

You cannot draw your sword.  I don’t care what the movies say, it can’t be done—in fact, it’s quite ridiculous when you actually try it.

The first problem is simply reaching back to grab the pommel.  I mean, look how far back the handle is:

You can reach it, but man that’s quite a stretch.  Even worse, the strap moves all over your shoulder, so the hilt is never in the same place.  It's nothing like wearing it on your hip where with muscle memory you know right where it is.  You have to reach way back, and you have to grope around until you find it.

I’ve seen people keep things strapped to their back in movies.  They make it look so easy, and they look so cool (e.g., Deadpool, whose crossed hilts are actually fixed securely to one spot on his back),  The reality is nothing like that.

Reach waaaay back there.

But the real problem comes when you actually try to draw the sword.  Essentially, the blade is too long and your arm is too short.  This just doesn’t work.

Got it! Not quite. . .

To pull it out I have to grip the blade at the ricasso (which is often left un-sharpened for half-sword thrusts and other techniques).
Hang on. . . I got this. . . Yeah!
Wearing the sword farther down your back does not work.  It just makes your sword that much harder to reach (I can barely grasp the pommel).  The sword is simply too long.  

And what do I do once I’ve slaughtered my enemy and I need to sheathe the sword?  Well, forget about it.  It’s just easier to take the whole thing off, and then sheathe it, then throw it over your shoulder once more.

Re-sheathing your sword?  Not a chance.
To get around all this, you might wonder why I don’t just take the whole thing off my shoulder and then draw my sword.  Well yeah, that works, but there are two problems.  First, that’s really slow.  Second, what do I do with my scabbard?  I suppose I can throw it over my shoulder once more, but that’s made all the more difficult because now my hands are full.  Another option would be, just tossing it to the side or handing it to my squire for safekeeping.

So yeah, it’s plausible, but it’s slow and awkward.  If I’m expecting trouble, it’s a lot easier to just keep it at my side.


Wearing a sword on your back is snug and comfortable and practical—unless you’re expecting trouble.  If you want to draw your weapon quickly, then don’t wear your sword on your back.  There’s no practical way to draw your sword, and you won’t be able to sheath it when you’re finished.  Keeping the sword farther down your back doesn’t work, either.  That just makes it harder to reach, and the blade is too long, anyway.

So question: would this work with a much shorter blade?  Absolutely.  I did a quick search and found a you-tube video of a guy dressed as Deadpool who had no trouble drawing both blades--but again, these were short-swords.  They weren't full-length katanas.

And with a short-sword I’d have to ask, “why?”  The whole point of wearing a sword on your back is because it’s huge and you want to get it out of the way.  A short sword wouldn’t have that problem, and it would be so much easier to wear it on your side.

I’m sure there’s twenty ways to debate this.  I look forward to your comments below.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

My Reading List for 2015

It’s amazing how much I’ve read this year, considering how little extra time I have.  In January I started teaching a course on algorithms and data structures for Brigham Young University’s Salt Like Center.  In addition to that, I began teaching a third-year course in Web Programming for Utah Valley University.  Between these two courses I’ve completely quit writing (not without a good deal of remorse), but somehow I’ve managed to continue reading and studying the craft.

Stonehenge, Bernard Cornwell

I love the way Cornwell writes, in particular I love his Sharpe series, and his Last Kingdom series.  Both of these I could just devour if I had the time.  Cornwell is one of the few authors that I wish I could be like.

Cornwell doesn’t write fantasy.  He only does historical fiction, so when I ran across Stonehenge, I thought this was the closest that I’d ever get.  Sadly, the novel didn’t live up to expectations.  The protagonist was kind of a weenie.  I was looking for another Uhtred, or another Sharpe, someone who at least takes control of what was going on around him.

Anyway, moving on…

Cornwell is still my hero, and in my Pantheon of Great Writers he is second only to this next author.

Pet Sematary, Stephen King

I’ve read a lot of Stephen King, but this is the first time I decided to try something that is straight-up horror.  In the introduction, King claims that this is the story that disturbed him the most.  Taken from a real-life near tragedy, he began speculating what would have happened had the unthinkable occurred.  The story is about an ancient Native American burial ground, where if you bury anything that had recently died, it will come back to life.

I’ll be honest.  I’ll read anything by Stephen King, just because it’s Stephen King.  Did I think Pet Sematary was scary?  Not sure.  I certainly liked it.  Have I read scarier stuff by King?  Oh, heck yeah!

Everything’s Eventual, Stephen King

So, I finally finished this book.  Like I said last year, I like to keep an anthology of short stories around so I have something to read when I’m between novels.  This book was full of superb stuff.

  • 1408: Probably the scariest thing I’ve read by King.  2/3 of the story is just set-up, where the owner of a hotel is trying to convince a ghost-hunter not to stay in room 1408.  By the time the main character actually enters the room and closes the door behind him you’re already keyed up.  I wouldn’t say that it was pee-your-pants scary, but it definitely spiked my adrenaline.  I went on a walk with my wife that evening, and I was jumping at shadows.  Delectable stuff!
  • Riding the Bullet: I absolutely loved this story.  It’s kind of hard to explain the plot, but it was one of those stories where the main character has a close encounter with the supernatural world, and consequences ensue.  This is a must-read.
  • The Road Virus Heads North: This was pretty darn scary, and superb fun at the same time.  The concept is brilliant.  

The Martian, Andy Weir

I have not read a book in 30 years that affected me emotionally as much as this story did.  A friend at work recommended it, and our whole team read it, and then we all went to see the movie as a work-event.  Weir really did his homework, and it paid off.  This is probably the best book I’ve read all year, hands-down.

Darth Plagueis, James Luceno

I was told that this book was considered cannon, and that it was somehow related to the upcoming Star Wars movie…or maybe I was mistaken.  Anyway, I’d say this is typical Star Wars fare.  I’ve read better and I’ve read worse.

Heir to the Empire, Timothy Zahn

This was another Star Wars novel.  The guys on my team at work recommended it.  I must not be that turned on by Star Wars.  For some reason I have yet to read a Star Wars novel that feels authentic to me.  I’m not sure what I mean by authentic.

Ringworld, Lary Niven

I spied this on the shelf at the library, and grabbed it.  It was a lot of fun, if you don’t think about it too much.  It’s a good read.  If you like science fiction classics, put it on your list.

Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein

This was probably the second-best book I’ve read this year.  It reads like a memoir.  This book is good more for its political commentary, and for the way it makes you think.  The main premise is this: what if in order to become a citizen of your country, or be able to serve in public office, you had to serve in the military and leave with an honorable discharge?  It’s a fascinating idea.  I don’t think the author intends to be taken completely seriously; rather, I think the author wants you to understand the military and the cost of freedom.  It was a really good book from that standpoint.

The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien

I’ve read The Hobbit a lot, but this is the first time I really studied it.  I ran across a passage in the intro, by Peter S. Beagle (author of The Last Unicorn), where he points out how the story leaves you with a powerful feeling of nostalgia.  I remember that feeling the first time I read The Hobbit for the first time, exactly 30 years ago, in fact.  As I got to the end I felt a strong sense of loss, because the characters had been so real to me but I knew it was just a story.

So this time I re-read the story, and I underlined and bookmarked every part where I felt that sense of nostalgia.  And I think I’ve got it, or at least I can kind of see what it is that I’ve been yearning for in Fantasy for so long.  It’s the same reason why I like The Last Kingdom, by Bernard Cornwell.  I feel the same kind of nostalgia.

I could write a whole blog-post on what I’ve learned.  Maybe I should.

Fuzzy Nation, John Scalzi

This was a lot of good fun.  It wasn’t nearly as goofy as the title sounds.  I’ll read just about anything by Scalzi, he’s such a good humorist, and he delivers another solid story.

Anansi Boys, Neil Gaiman

This book is very much in the same vein as American Gods, which is probably everyone’s favorite Gaiman novel.  I love Gaiman’s sense of humor.  There aren’t a lot of authors with his kind of wit.

Good Omens, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

This was a hilarious read.  Two of the very best humorists in fantasy team up and write about what would happen if the apocalypse came about, and then bungled, and then fell completely apart.  Put this one on your list.

The Bourne Identity, Robert Ludlum

Good spy novel.  A guy wakes up and has amnesia, and finds out that he’s really a world-famous international assassin…or so it would seem.  I think Ludlum was the one who gave birth to the whole waking-up-but-don’t-know-who-you-are trope.  If I hadn’t seen this overused a hundred times by his successors, I’d be more impressed.  Even still, I think this book is a great read.

The Sandman, book 1, Neil Gaiman

I’ve read a lot of Gaiman this year, haven’t I?  This is another story in the vein of American Gods and Anansi Boys, where the old gods (in this case, the Sandman) would cope in the modern world.  The Sandman has lost his powers.  The world is suffering, and he has to go on a magical adventure to get his powers back.