Thursday, December 27, 2012

Why Les Miserables Matters

Les Miserables is about belief, faith, and conversion.  It is about moments of Crisis that test us and try us.
Do you live what you profess?  What would it take to change your mind?  Can people change?  What is worth living for?  What is worth dying for?

These are the themes of Les Miserables.  Each main character must face a moment when their view on life, their professed reason for happiness, is challenged.

The story begins with an old Bishop.  He gives up the large church to make it a hospital, and moves his alter and house into the old small hospital.  He helps the poor, the needy, and never keeps anything nice or expensive for himself, except a nice set of silver dinnerware. 
Along comes a poor convict – fresh out of prison.  The Bishop gives the man dinner on his silver, lets him sleep on a feather bed, and calls him “brother.”
The convict steals all the silverware from the cupboard.  He runs away in the night and is caught by the gendarmes and brought back to the Bishop. 

The bishop has always professed to be a forgiving man of God.  He lives a poor simple life, but has somehow kept this silver all along.  Will he still be forgiving to a man that betrayed his trust and mocked his hospitality?  Will he still keep his little guilty pleasure – the silver, or will he give it up, and forgive the convict?  Where does his happiness lie?  Is it in Justice or Mercy?

She falls in love.  She is in the prime of her youth and can’t imagine a better life.  Then her wealthy boyfriend abandons her one day and she is left alone, pregnant, with no employment.  She passes a woman on the street who had two daughters of her own.  Those two little girls look happy and content.  Her daughter could possibly have a better life living with them for a time.  Will the mother give up her daughter to grant her the chance at a better life?
The mother attains work, but is eventually cast out because she has a child and no husband.  She can’t find any good work and must decide between her pride and dignity, and supporting her daughter financially.  Will she sell her locket, her hair, her teeth, her virtue?  What can she sacrifice for the love of her daughter?  Where does her happiness lie?  Is it in her own life, or her daughters?

His father left when he was young, and never returned.  His Grandfather is rich and wants to dictate how his grandson lives his life.  Will this young man live a rich privileged life that he is entitled to?  While he live poor?  When he finds out his father was a good honest man, will he follow his footsteps? 
The revolutionary believes in the people of France.  He believes in the cause of freedom.  His life is dedicated to the revolution.  Then he falls in love - completely and absolutely head-over-heels in love.  His love is leaving, going away to England forever.  Will he follow her and find happiness in a life of love and happiness?  Will he stay and fight at the barricades in the cause of freedom?

The revolutionary knows his father’s life was saved by a man named Thernardier.  He swears to his father to help this “Thernardier” if they ever meet.  He swears to help him anyway he can.  When they do meet, Thernardier is a the worst and most vile of men.  The revolutionary watches as his girlfriend and her father are threatened, kidnapped, and held hostage by Thernardier.
Should the Revolutionary save his girlfriend, or the man he swore to serve and protect?  Is his happiness in love, or in honor?

(this story line is only in the musical, not in the book)
She loves a young man.  He is handsome; he is brave; he is rich but lives like he’s poor.; and… he is in love with someone else. 

She would be his at any moment if he asked, but he sees them as “just friends.”  He asks her to help him court his love.  He asks her to find her, find her address, take him to her, deliver her love notes.
Where does the happiness of ”the other woman” lie?  Is it in being with him, or in making him happy by helping him be with another?

When he breaks her heart over and over again, should she still defend and help him?  When his life is in danger, will she sacrifice her life for his, even though he is in love with someone else?

Life is just.  You reap what you sow.  There are no hand-outs.  There are no gray areas.  There is hard work and honest living, and that’s the way to be happy. 
He is just in all things.  He gives people exactly what is required by law.  He has no need to pass judgment because that is for God and the courts.  He enforces.

Men are good, or men are bad.  They choose, and they keep their course.  He has seen it time and time again. 
When Javert wrongly accuses a man, he asks for demotion and reprimand.  He asks that justice be meted out on him as it is on everyone else.

What does he do when a convict, a man who broke his parole and is on the lam, appears to be good? The man helps others and lives a seemingly honest life.   How can this be?
When a man he has hunted, chased, and found has a chance to kill the inspector, the convict instead lets him live.  He lets him go.

When the convict should be running for his life, he stops to help an injured young man, to carry him to safety.
The convict never asks for help for himself, only to be allowed to help others.  He needs an hour, a day, a short time to finish helping someone else, then he’ll turn himself in.  Can he be believed?

The Inspector must decide: Is happiness found in never breaking a single rule?  Is it found in justice?  Is there room for mercy, and if so, how can he reconcile that in his mind? 

He is the main character of the story.  He has many of these moments of Crisis.  When he is shown kindness and love, will he steal and be who he has become in Prison?  Will he steal the silver from the Bishop?
When he is forgiven and given a new lease on life – will he change, will he become a better man?

When another man is accused in his place.  When the convict could have someone else jailed in his place, will he let it happen and live a free man, or will he confess to save this stranger from a lifetime in Prison?
When the convict sees a prostitute being abused and mis-accused, while he stand up for her? 

When he is asked to care for a little child, what will he do for her? 
When she grows up and has become all he cares about in the world, can he let her go when it is her time to move on, marry, and live her own life?

When he is given a chance to exact punishment and vengeance on the officer who had been chasing him his entire adult life, will he take it.? When the officer has done “wrong” and the convict has ”the right” to kill him, will he?
When the convict realizes he is a liability to his daughter, will he exit her life for good, for her good?

This story speaks to us.  It speaks to the very core of why we live.  What makes us happy?  What makes life worth living, and death worth dying?  What is the ultimate goal?  Where is the line between right and wrong, good and bad, justice and mercy?

This is about conversion – do we really believe that which we profess?  When it’s all on the line, who are we?
Who Am I?

(If you want to read an abridged version of the book - here's my version)

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Review - Les Miserables Movie


Of course I enjoyed it - I'm a Les Miserables fanatic.  But it was not perfect.

This is a review of the movie for those who know the story, know the musical, and can even name many of the actors.  This review spoils everything, does not review the story at all, but rather the mechanics, the casting, writing, and filming.

Here's what was great: 

1. New Song: "Suddenly" was very needed because it finally gives Valjean a reason to care so deeply for Cosette. Before in the musical, he finds her, takes her away from Thenardiers, and then suddenly loves her like a daughter with no explanation.

 2. Colm Wilkinson as the Bishop: Having the original Valjean in the movie was genius. He sang it well.

3. Adding Marius' Grandfather: It was a needed addition to the story line to show how Marius can have this rich extravagant wedding and care for Cosette well.

4. Gavroche: He was amazing. His face and singing was perfect. The moment with Javert and the pin was very touching. My personal favorite addition was the fact that Gavroche lives in an elephant statue. That is taken directly from the book, and I appreciated it.

 5. The Revolution scenes: They look so real. The war is real, the despair is real, and the outcome is real. Tragic, and real. It was well filmed

6. Javert toe's the line: During "Stars" and "Suicide" he literally toe's the line on the ledge, and the symbolism is deep.

7. Fixing the ending. They finally took Eponine out of the song when Valjean is dying and going to heaven. It never made sense. Replacing her with the Bishop made it a great ending. (I wrote a whole blog post about this before)

 8. Many singers: Marius, Enjolras, Grantaire, Cosette (old and young), Eponine, Gavroche, the Bishop, and Fantine all did an amazing job. Madame Thernardier sang it exactly like the concert version - which was great. Valjean and Mr. Thernardier were good. Javert was fair.

Thing that they messed up: 

1. Russell Crowe. I think they should have cast someone else - but even so - they screwed up worse. They added new lines just for the movie, they were lines that were only going to be sung by one person (Russell Crowe) in one movie. WHY did they write them in a high octave?!?! They made Crowe sound ridiculous by writing him high notes to sing/speak when they could easily have written them in his range. That was dumb.

2. Changing "I have bought your soul for God." They made it "I have saved your soul for God" instead. The book and the original say "bought." Why change it?

3. New lines being sung with odd melodies. Many of the new lines were important, but the music was poor, and they sounded very forced.

4. Bring Him Home - Sorry, but Hugh Jackman couldn't sing it high and soft like it needs to be. He had to belt it out to make it work - which ruined it.

I thought was a very good movie. It tells the story very VERY well. It all makes sense, it is emotional, and it draws you in and makes you weep. I'll buy it. I wasn't perfect, but I recommend it.

To prove how much of a Les Miserables nerd I am:
Here are the prediction I made about the movie back in September

Here is my abridgment of the entire book (500 pages)

Here is my comparison of Valjean with Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Funniest Man I Know - Christian Busath

I met Christian my Freshman year of college. We were both cast as pirates in the Pirates of Penzance. I laughed hysterically every time we rehearsed. Since then I watched him in the university impromptu comedy group "Comic Frenzy." Then I saw him perform in West Yellowstone at the Playmill Theatre. I've gone to church with him, and even when he speaks from the pulpit, he can't help but make people laugh. Here are my favorite videos of him.

This is the best - Christian as the real life Fruit Ninja

This is a very close second - Christian as William Wallace. (after his part ends the rest is just a regular commercial so I stop watching after "put it out buddy"

Singing Magic Foot in "25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee"

Cute short film about fitting in:

Watching a man his size flying through the air off a slip n' slide ramp is just awesome.

Here he is as Lefou in a small stage production of "Beauty and the Beast."

A commercial for BYU football with Christian as the office manager:

This is a movie he was in: (haven't been able to see it yet)

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Access and Availability

This week there has been a horrific school shooting.  28 people in Connecticut are dead, 20 of them young children.

As the world mourns the questions again arise about gun control.  There have also been a few people who are discussing mental illness and autism.  Everyone is trying to figure out – how do we prevent this from happening again?  

These shootings are happening more and more often.  I remember when the Columbine massacre happened.  For me, that was “the first one.”  I’m sure it wasn’t the first, but that’s the first large scale shooting I remember.  Since then there has been Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Tuscon, Aurora, and many others.

How do we do it?  Do we decrease guns, do we increase mental health treatment, do we increase police forces, increase surveillance, home school our kids?

As I’ve debated all these questions, I keep coming back to “Access and Availability.”

I work in Mental Health.  I work daily with people who attempt or contemplate suicide.  I’ve seen plenty of people who are debating it, and way too many who have already attempted.
I’ve seen my patient on the news with the SWAT team outside their house as they have barricaded themselves in and threatened to kill themselves or anyone who tried to enter.

I don’t know anything about the people who committed these mass shootings.  I know reports have come out that say some were under the care of a psychiatrist.  The Connecticut shooter was possibly Autistic.  I don’t know.

I know ways to reduce suicide, reduce gun violence, reduce drug use, and increase treatment of autism and mental illness.

It’s all about access and availability.

I have come to realize a sad fact: There are people who are going to kill themselves, no matter what.  You can lock them up, take away their guns, give them medications, do everything you can – some people are decided, dedicated, and they will do it.

Most people are not that way.  Most people act on impulse, and if you can slow them down or make it a little harder – they’ll reconsider before they do something irreparable.  They think about it a lot, they plan it even, but they don't do it until something snaps, and then many of them just need time to come back to their senses.

Why do gun locks work for suicidal patients?  It slows them down.  When they feel that terrible impulse and just want to kill themselves, they have to find the key and then unlock the gun before they can use it.  

Why does gun control work?  It makes it harder to get a gun.  Yes, if people really want one – they are going to get one.  Like I said – there are some people who can’t be stopped.  That is not most people.  If it is very difficult to get a gun, and it takes a while – you see a reduction in gun crimes.

How do you increase treatment of autism and mental illness - you make it available and easily accessable.
In my city there are many programs to help children with Autism.  I have seen friends, neighbors and patients vastly improve because of these programs.  When treatment and support are available, they are used.  

If you want better treatment of mental illness, increase the access and availability.  Get rid of the stigma and more people will seek treatment.

If you want less gun crimes, decrease the access and availability, and increase the stigma.

 - With all that said.  I think what I've written above is not the best option, but it's what will actually work.  I think what SHOULD be done is totally different.  I think parents should raise and teach their kids.  I think people should be kind and considerate.  I don’t think access and availability should matter at all.  I think people should govern themselves.

Unfortunately we don’t live in that “ideal” world, so I turn to laws and regulations on access and availability.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Rarely does a book shock me.  This one did multiple times over.

Here’s a quick summary:
Henrietta Lacks was a poor black woman who was raised on a tobacco sharecropping farm.  She was poor, uneducated, abused, and she eventually developed cervical cancer.  She lived in Baltimore about 20 minutes from Johns Hopkins University.  It was the only place that would see blacks with no insurance, so that’s where she went.  Hopkins had a bad reputation for experimenting on their “colored patients” but it was the only place she could go, and they did have brilliant doctors and great facilities.

Also in Baltimore was a man named Dr. George Gey.  He was trying with all his might to keep human tissue samples alive in Petri dishes.  No one had been able to keep human tissues or cells alive for very long.  You could freeze it and preserve it – but all tissue eventually died, the cells would reproduce maybe a few times – then die.  He asked the doctors at the hospitals to collect extra samples of all tissues for him so he could try to keep them alive or even make the cells replicate in a test tube.

Henrietta had a malignant cervical tumor.  Her doctor took a biopsy, and sent part of it to pathology for diagnosis and part of it to Dr. Gey.  He labeled the test tubes with the first two initials of her first and last name: He La

Dr. Gey’s assistant put it the “nutrient bath” like the last few thousand samples and waited and watched.
For the first time ever – a set of human cells didn’t die, they multiplied.  They multiplied so fast it was unbelievable.  Sure they were cancer cells which always grow out of control – in the body.  But Gey had tested tons of cancer cells before, they all died.  These grew and spread like wild fire.  He told a few fellow researchers that he may have found the first “immortal” human cell line ever.  They asked if they could have some, and he freely gave them.  He started giving them to everybody.

Meanwhile Henrietta underwent radiation therapy.  While she was burned from the outside she had the most malignant and vicious cancer destroying her from the inside.  She soon died Oct 4 1951.

1952 was the worst US outbreak ever of Polio and Dr. Jonas Salk was desperately looking for a way to test his vaccine.  He needed human tissue that was susceptible to Polio that he could use his vaccine on and then inject with polio to see if it worked.  He needed to test it thousands and thousands of times and with multiple versions of his vaccine.

Dr. Gey knew he had what Dr. Salk needed.  They tested the HeLa cells, and they were susceptible to Polio.  They set up a massive cell reproduction system and started producing billions of HeLa cells for Polio experimentation.

In 1955 the vaccine was released.  Together with the vaccine developed by Sabin, polio was eradicated.

HeLa cells were then used by everyone for everything.  Bio-Tech companies reproduced HeLa cells on a massive scale and sold them to laboratories around the world.
HeLa cells were the only cells that could be tested forever.  You could test anything on them: diseases, drugs, radiation, zero gravity – if the cells died you just went to the test tube and got more of them.  They never stopped multiplying.  HeLa cells were sent to the moon and were exploded in atomic bombs.  They were fused with animal cells to make hybrid cells with mouse and human genes. 

HeLa cells became the basis of a HUGE portion of biological research.  The cells were a medical revolution and sparked a multi-million dollar industry.

Only one problem - No one told Henrietta or anyone in her family.  They found out 22 years later through a chance encounter.  In 1973 Henrietta’s daughter-in-law, Bobbette, was chatting with her friend and her husband.  She mentioned she was from Baltimore and her married name was Lacks.
The friends husband told her that was amazing because he’d been working for years with these cells in his lab and had just read an article that said they came from a woman named Henrietta Lacks.
Bobbette told him that was her mother in law’s name, but there couldn’t be a relation because her mother in law had died in 1951.
“Did she die of cervical cancer?”  He asked.
-“How’d you know that?”
“Those cells in my lab have to be hers.  They’re from a black woman named Henrietta Lack who died of cervical cancer at Hopkins in the fifties.”
- “WHAT?!” Bobbette yelled, jumping up from her chair.  “What do you mean you’ve got her cells in your lab?”
He held his hand up in the air, like whoa, wait a minute. I ordered them from a supplier just like everybody else.”
- “What do you mean ‘everybody else’?!”  She snapped “What Supplier?  WHO’S GOT CELLS FROM MY MOTHER IN LAW?!”

And that’s how the nightmare started.  There was a woman whose biopsied cells had been sold for millions or billions of dollars and saved thousands of lives.  Her family was still dirt poor, couldn’t afford health insurance, and they were about to embark on a terrible and heart wrenching journey to find out what had been done to their mother.  Had anyone ever asked for permission to use those cells?  Would they ever see any money from their use?  Over the next 20 years her family would be ignored, followed, tested, lied to, deceived, interviewed and filmed dozens of times over.  

The book tells the story of Henrietta and her family, the story of the HeLa cells and all the good and bad they were used for, and the story of the author, Rebecca Skloot.  It took her 10 years to write the book.  It is fascinating, funny, horrific, shocking and heart-warming all at the same time.

I will be hanging a picture of Henrietta Lacks in my office.  I never want to forget her story. 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

I don't know about you, but usually the hardest decision isn't "should I give" but rather "who should I give to?"

How can you make sure your donation gets to people who really need it?

For the last few years my Boy Scout Troop (I'm one of the scout leaders) has held a Toy Drive. 

We ask for new or gently used toys.  These are all given to families and kids in need (as identified by their school teachers and counselors.)
Most of these families haven’t asked for anything at all.  Their teachers saw a need, and we are trying to meet it.

How does it work? These families are invited to "shop" at the Toy Drive.  They walk around our tables of donated items and they pick out what is needed for their family.

Our older Scouts have been working for months to get bicycles ready.  Every Wednesday night they've been collecting, cleaning, fixing, constructing and painting 10 bikes for this years Toy Drive.
My wife and I went through our house this week and donated books, stuffed animals, blocks, coats, clothes,  etc…  This isn’t just toys, it’s for anything families need.

I post this now because... we're short.  We don't have enough for the families that need our help.
This is my plea - Donate.  Look around your home.  Are there nice toys your kids don't use anymore?  Is there an Air Hockey Table that has sat unused for years?  Do you have an old Xbox, or a Wii, or a system or games you don't use anymore.  Are there books, dolls, clothes, hats, games that are in good condition and deserve a new home where they'll be used and loved?  We are looking for toys for children aged 0-18 years old so the parents of struggling families can provide Christmas for their children.

If you would like to donate, please comment here or contact Jim or Janice Franckum to arrange for us to pick them up. 
Email: or call 775-741-7779

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Larsen's World Famous Butter Toffee

This is the Butter Toffee Recipe from my Grandmother, Mildred Larsen. 

1 Cube Butter
1 Cube Margarine
1 Cup Sugar
5 TBSP water

4 Hershey's Chocolate Bars
Chopped Walnuts

You also need a sauce pan for the stove top, a wooden spoon, a metal flat ended spatula and an 8x8 pan (or 7x10, or any size that's between 60 and 70 inches square)

(The instructions are the next paragraph, this is just a quick funny story about this recipe) -  I have made this Toffee since I was in Junior High.  I made my mother show me how to make it 8 times in a row.  Once I had it down I've made it every year since.  About 15 years later I was at my aunt's house (also a Larsen) and I tasted her toffee and it was different.  I asked her why, and we compared recipes.  She laughed and said "You're still using 1 cube of margarine too?  Grandma only used margarine because two cubes of butter was too expensive."
SO - like the old story about the family that always cut the end off of the ham - I have been making it "the cheap way" my whole life. 
Well - that's how I like it, so that's how I make it - you can use all butter if you want.


1st: Get everything ready.  You better have all your Hershey bars out and unwrapped and your walnuts chopped and your 8x8 pan nearby before you begin.  Because you never get to stop stirring and there won't be any spare time once you begin.

2nd: Put the 2 cubes of butter, the cup of sugar, and the 5 Tablespoons of water in a saucepan on high.  Start stirring.

3rd: When it starts boiling you have between 6 and 9 minutes to go. (I know that's a wide range, sorry)  Keep stirring, always the same direction.

It will start out really thin and bright yellow.
 It'll thicken a little.
 Then it'll turn a little whiter and really start sticking to the edges
Then it will turn a little more grayish, and you'll start to see dark brown on the bottom of the pot.  It will start clumping together and pulling away from the sides of the pan.
 4th:  When you start to smell a little smoke and it smells a little burned and you think your eyes might start to water if you stood right over the pan - you're just about there.  I wait about 20 seconds after I sense that smell and feel my eyes twinge a little.  (Don't burn it or let it get dark brown.)
*I recently used a candy thermometer and it was done when it reached about 285 F.  This is a little shy of "Hard Crack."  If you want to try the thermometer, go ahead, but I have always done it by "look and smoke."

5th: Pour it into the 8x8 pan, DO NOT scrape the sauce pan to get all of it.  If you do you'll be scraping in little burned sections and your toffee will taste burned.
6th: Lay the four Hershey bars face down on the top.  It doesn't matter how they're arranged or if they're broken - how ever they fit into your pan without overlapping is fine.
 7th: Wait for the chocolate to melt all the way through, then spread it with a flat tipped metal spatula so that liquid chocolate covers all the toffee.

8th: Spread your chopped walnuts over the top.

9th: Let the toffee cool down so the chocolate can harden. 
 - I always put it someplace in the garage where kids (and animals) can't get to it. That way it cools down faster and I can eat it sooner. (in summer time I put it in the freezer)

10th: When it's cool you should be able to turn the pan over and "pop" the whole square of toffee out.  Then put it on a cutting board and use a knife (whose point you don't care about) and break the toffee into pieces. (If you just hold the knife vertical and stab the point straight down into the toffee it will crack and separate and you can make the pieces more or less whatever size you want)
Put it on a platter or whatever you think looks festive and EAT UP!

Hope this makes sense - Merry Christmas and Happy Toffee Making!