Saturday, January 31, 2015

How to Write a Tune 1

Would you like to be able to write a tune, say, for a song or a hymn or an instrumental solo? How can you make it sound like as though you meant it that way? How can you make it sound like a tune?

I make no claims to be a great composer. I may not even be rated as a particularly good composer when my none-too-numerous musical works are subjected to the judgment of history. I'm still finding my way along. But I've had to write a lot of tunes lately in a very short amount of time, and I have been working on this for two or three decades, so I might just have some pointers that may help beginners get oriented. Today's tip will be the first in a short series on this.

But first, let's lay a bit of background, both to help you and to establish where I'm coming from on this.

I dig classical music and traditional worship music, such as hymns. I have the highest respect for chant, both the Roman and Anglican types. I love the music of Handel and Bach, Haydn and Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven, Brahms and Chopin, and many, many other models right up to the present day, and I think there is much to be learned from how they handled melody and other dimensions of music.

I believe a melody written for any instrument, including the human voice, will work best if written with the melodic qualities of that instrument in mind, before being tried out on another instrument (such as the piano) or shaded in with harmony, counterpoint or accompaniment. So, assuming for example the tune you want to write is for a vocal song, I think the best way to approach it is vocally, by singing the tune (or at least a portion of it) before ever laying finger to keyboard or pen to paper.

I think of composing music as a problem solving activity. For example, I have recently taken to comparing the process of harmonizing a tune to doing Sudoku. Every composer sets his own rules and criteria for how to solve musical problems, often a specific set of rules for each individual piece, and how each problem is worked out according to these rules is what gives each piece its distinctive style. Each compositional problem contains its own parameters for what needs to be accomplished and what means may be used to accomplish it.

Solving musical puzzles could be, and maybe should be, as exciting as, or more exciting than, doing many other kinds of puzzles. Music exists in a space that has more conceptual dimensions, more levels of complexity, than nearly anything else in human experience - especially when it is married to poetry, and I think sacred poetry raises that complexity to the highest degree.

A traditional Christian hymn in Protestant chorale style may be one of the most complex yet deceptively simple inventions in the history of mankind. For it to achieve the highest level of excellence, it needs to succeed on so many levels. The lyrics can be bad poetry, or they can be in a reasonably good verse style but without much spark of inspiration, or they can be rich in literary techniques but emotionally dry, or they can be passionately moving but lacking in taste or thematic unity, and there are lots of other ways it can be more or less good but not great, and then once in a while it is all that a poem can be.

All that is prologue to the question of the religious content of the lines. What is the doctrinal persuasion of the poem? Is the doctrinal message clear but trite and shallow? Is it a brilliant exposition of doctrine but spiritually dry? Does it drip with evangelical fervor but lack biblical imagery? Does it fascinate with its kaleidoscopic swirl of biblical analogies but lack a unifying idea? If it's supposed to be (for example) a Lutheran hymn, how does it score on the Law-Gospel meter? The efficacy of the Word? The power of the Sacraments? The theology of the cross? And so on. The author has to balance a lot of things to achieve something really special on all these criteria, and then the question remains whether it would have any appeal to the layman, or to children, or to the singing congregation, or whatever the target audience is meant to be.

And then there's the music, which has at least as many axes along which it can range from bad to so-so to good and exceedingly good, and it takes the lot of them reckoned together to achieve an overall sense of whether the music was at all good, or whether it might not even be great.

When great literary, religious and musical materials comes together in one place, it's little short of miraculous.

So let's get down to the most basic level: the tune, how to write one, Lesson 1: Deciding what key to write it in.

All right. You've hummed the tune. You know how it goes. And let's also assume you have the musical wherewithal to scratch the notes onto paper. Preparing to do this is a whole course of study unto itself. It's called music theory, though a lot of it comes packaged with practical experience such as piano or voice lessons. If you want to write the tune down, you've got to know what the lines and spaces on the staff stand for, at least in the treble clef (though you'll need the bass clef later on). You'll want to have some concept of the names of the notes and the size of the musical intervals between them, their rhythmic durations, and the sharps and flats of the major and minor keys.

Consider all this Lesson 0, because if you don't already know it, you won't get Lesson 1. And while you might be able to find someone who can read and write musical notation for you and convince them to act as your secretary, your composing career probably won't go much farther than writing a few tunes unless you learn the basics for yourself. Don't get me wrong; some people have written famous melodies this way, and had other people add harmony and accompaniment for them. But there will be a point in this series where the fun will go out of it for you unless you learn your crotchets and quavers. Just so you're forewarned.

So. Now you've got a tune in your mind and you're ready to start marking notes on scoring paper. But where do you begin? Should the first note be a G, a B-flat, or a C-sharp? There are literally a dozen possibilities.

One approach, though not necessarily the right one, is to poke around on a piano or some other instrument and then write down whatever note sounds closest to the first note of the melody as you hear it in your mind's ear. Then, by working out which degree of the tonic scale that note is, you can very simply work out what key your piece is in. But supposing for example that your tune is in a major key, it would still be the same tune no matter what key you wrote it in. Many famous tunes have been written down in different keys, sometimes within the original piece and sometimes in books that transpose them into other keys for one reason or another.

Why does this matter? What difference does it make, what key your tune is in? Well, to answer that you'll need to understand why different books print the same song transposed to different keys.

Sometimes you'll see a piece that was written with lots of sharps or flats transposed so it would have fewer black notes, or to change flats into sharps or sharps into flats. This may have been done to make it easier for musicians to play it on their instruments. There are keys in which a piece may be harder to play on a flute or trumpet, or may present bowing difficulties to a string player. Pianists and organists may also find some keys easier to play than others, and will appreciate having a choice of keys in which to play certain pieces.

Then there's the matter of the range of an instrument or voice type. The same tune in one key might fit comfortably within the range of a flute or oboe, or the vocal range of a tenor or alto, while in another key it might be pitched uncomfortably high and put strain on the performer. Or it might be pitched too low and make it hard for them to project their tone properly. Or it might not fit within the range of notes they can play or sing at all. As for the keyboardist, all the notes may exist on the piano and the two keys may be equally easy to play, but the lower key may give the harmony a dark, muddy, murky sound; or a higher key may make it sound shrill, thin and unsupported. Sometimes it may take as little as a difference of a major second to register undesirable effects like this, which can seriously harsh your groove as you're singing and playing through, say, a low voice album of songs that were originally written with a high voice in mind.

If you look at hymnals published over the generations, you may notice that certain hymns keep being shifted down into lower keys. This is because concert pitch, the standard used for tuning instruments, has gone up little by little as the technology of building musical instruments evolved. Authentic-practice and original-instrument performances of pieces from the Baroque era will, for example, sound about a step lower than modern-instrument performances of the same. If you try to sing a hymn by Martin Luther in the key it was originally published in, you'll feel it in your vocal cords: the need to transpose the tune into a lower key. And if you take a choir piece written for a TTBB ensemble and try to change it to an SATB choir piece, you may find that more needs to be changed than who sings what: the whole piece may need to come up a step or two.

So, what key your tune will be written in really is an important decision.

There are a lot of reasons to choose one tune rather than another, quite apart from whether it will be a minor or a major key or some other scale or mode. Keeping your tune firmly in mind, you may have to poke around a bit and experiment until you find the right answer.

What are some of these reasons to choose?

RANGE: First, you'll want the tune to fit within the range of the voice or instrument it is intended for. So, after sketching it out in an arbitrary key (say, C major), figure out which are the highest and lowest notes in the tune. Then find out how those notes lie within the range of the target voice or instrument. Well inside or overlapping the realm of the impossible? Painfully high, ungratefully low, or comfortably centered? Look for a key where the range fits well.

TESSITURA: Similar to the question of range (sort of the "over-under" of the pitches in the tune) is the tessitura, which is more of an average. Do notes quite high or low in the instrument's or voice's range predominate to an uncomfortable, tiring, or unattractive way? Will the overall tune err in favor of sounding dark and muted or high and shrill? Will the highlights and shadows of the melody be appropriately balanced? Does the melody cross an awkward break between vocal or instrumental registers too often or in a way the performer will have trouble smoothing over?

EASE OF READING: Will the performer need to work extra hard to coordinate the written notes with actual performance? Will the number of sharps or flats put an undue burden on them? You will also have to consider how the choice of key will affect the performance of all the other harmony parts.

DEVELOPMENT: Is the tune a theme you plan to develop in a larger-scale piece? In that case, in what other keys, relative to the original key, may you want to state the theme? How those keys relate to the range, tessitura, and ease of reading issues may prompt you to change your mind about the original key, consequently changing the key of all the other occurrences of the theme.

SYMBOLISM: If you're writing a song about Jesus' seven last words on the cross, would you consider using a key with seven sharps in it? How about five sharps for his five wounds? Or three sharps (or flats) for a hymn on the Trinity? Some composers assign other symbolism to their choice of keys, such as Mozart's "Masonic" key of E-flat and Beethoven's tragic key of C minor.

TONE COLOR: Musicians and music buffs are often sensitive to tiny changes in tone color resulting from as little as whether a piece is notated in F-sharp (six sharps) or G-flat (six flats). The choice between E-flat major and D major, only a half step apart, can have a real effect on the mood and musical color of a piece.

GOOD PRACTICE: All that being said, it's good practice to exercise your ability to write, and others' ability to perform, in a variety of keys. Always sticking to the same three or four keys can be a trait of a composer whose body of work all sounds the same. Trying a less frequently visited key can force you to stretch your horizons and lead you to discover unexpected touches.

Have your tune's key picked? Good. Now, if you've followed my advice and written it in your head without pounding it on a piano, you have a place to begin as you pick out the notes and ink them onto the staff paper. But maybe you haven't even gotten that far. Lesson 2 will get into more of the parameters of what makes a tune a tune. Stay tuned, eh!

How to Pray in Public and Not Sound Like an Ass

In a recent conversation with my pastor, I recalled an event I attended as a journalist where a civic organization's chaplain, not a clergyman, said grace before barbecue was served. It was a painful memory. The poor man rambled at length, frequently repeating the phrases "Father God" and "we just want" and really not asking for much in particular. At times he seemed to get stuck in a kind of verbal thicket and had to mouth sweet nothings in order to keep up a semblance of saying something while he clearly didn't have a thought in his head.

It made me realize once again what a disservice some church groups do to themselves and the larger community by refusing to countenance written or memorized prayers. In American Protestantism there is a widespread sensibility that prayer, to be genuine, must come "from the heart," or perhaps by a direct intervention of the Holy Spirit, and so must not have been prepared ahead of time.

Apart from an argument from Scripture, and indeed the words of Jesus, that could readily demolish this thinking in him who has ears to hear, the main problem with this is that most people are so very, very bad at ex corde prayer. The thought of being asked to say grace in front of a group of people must, and should, give them cold sweats. The experience of having to listen to them trying, regardless of their inadequacy to the task, should school us not to ask that of them. It's hard on the rest of us, and it makes a hash of the Golden Rule. We wouldn't want to be put in their position; why do we do it to them?

Now I can say all this with righteous detachment, because I do in fact know how to pray off-script, and how to sound good doing it. And though I don't accept it as given that such prayers are any better than, say, the prayer the Lord Himself taught us, I'm not above sharing a few pointers that, with a bit of practice, should be able to help anybody pray in public without the benefit of notes or rote memory, and without making a pitiful fist of it.

In short, here are a few tips on how you, too, can pray in public without sounding like a complete ass.

1. Stop and think. Even if you must pray without a net, that doesn't mean you shouldn't have some preparation. Take a moment to prepare yourself mentally. Insist on having a good five minutes to think, without someone talking at you and without being expected to talk. Excuse yourself from the room, say, to freshen up in the bathroom, and enjoy a moment of privacy with your own thoughts. Or just close your eyes and take a time out.

Use this time to decide where your prayer is going to begin and where it's going to end, and if you can, try to visualize something like a route between the two points. If the mob is clamoring to hear you pray and they are too inconsiderate to grant you a moment's leave or reprieve, let your fallback strategy be to call on everyone to share with you a moment of silence while they frame their own petitions in their heart; then use that moment to frame yours.

2. Don't be caught without a book. Even if you know the group would frown on being led in a prayer read out of it, you should have it with you. A good first choice is the Bible. A close second, a hymnal or prayer-book. A distant third, a book of sermons, devotions or spiritual exercises. If there's any risk that you will be called forward to pray - say, because the regular chaplain or minister became unavailable on short notice and you're the next best thing - such a book should be as much part of your survival kit as road flares and bottled water.

In the first place, having something to hang onto may help control the panic. In the second place, you can use part of your five minutes of thinking time to rifle through the book in search of a quotation to use as a jumping off place or an organizing metaphor, or even to give you an idea what to pray about. "Lord, you told the prophet Isaiah that the breath of your mouth will slay the wicked. Breathe mercifully on this conference of the Halitosis Sufferers Prayer Circle..."

3. Prepare in advance for even the slight possibility you will be called on to pray in front of a group. You can do this, first of all, by making a habit of praying daily, or even oftener. Pray aloud and listen to yourself. Record yourself praying and listen to the playback. Write down your prayers and read them later. Note ways your praying could be improved and work on those. Second of all, you can prepare for prayer by studying. Be first and foremost a student of Scripture, armed with a wide range of biblical references as well as the theological raw material of prayer. Liturgy, theological literature and the written prayers of previous generations can also be useful models to study.

Observe, for example, the structure of collects, those stylized liturgical prayers that compress so much thought into so few words. If you remember to do all the things a collect does - addressing God by name, asking for something He is sure to give, stating an appropriate precedent or rationale for that assurance, and closing with a doxology - you won't go too far wrong. And if you can manage to tie all these parts together in a unity, as though each part of the prayer were a piece of evidence in a lawsuit, you might even pull it off with real style.

4. If you get stuck, stop talking. Needing to fill every second with blab is a rookie mistake. Some of the most effective prayers can be ones in which each sentence is set off by a pause at least as long as itself. Breathe deeply, stay calm, and think. Use the pause to plan the next sentence or two. And who knows, your hearers may find it makes you sound deep.

If you find that you've run clean out of ideas and can't seem to find a way out of your prayer, head straight for the exit. I don't mean run out of the room; I mean just end the prayer, preferably before the point where everyone else realizes what a hard time you're having and becomes uncomfortable for you. Having a stock outro like, "In your most holy name, Lord Jesus, Amen" could save your bacon. With a little more thought and preparation you could finesse a "Whatever else we should ask, we leave in Your loving hands," or a "Help us to trust you with humble and thankful hearts," etc.

5. Actually pray. I've said this in a previous post on this topic, so I won't belabor it here; but really, if you're going to take the podium to pray on behalf of any group of people, it behooves you to understand just what you're about. Praying is, at the simplest level, asking God for stuff. It can be spiritual stuff; it can be material stuff. But if you don't actually ask God for anything, you haven't prayed. You can put forth petition after petition thanking God for this and praising God for that, and it's all very well; but you haven't hit the target until you actually make a request.

So if you're going to pray in public, and you give yourself the necessary five minutes to order your thoughts, try not to let even one of those minutes pass without thinking of something for which to pray. You're not ready if all you've got to say is, "Father God, we just want to thank you for what an awesome God you are, and for bringing us all here to share this incredible food or to do this excellent work, or whatever, but Father God, gee whiz, Lord, you're just the greatest," and so on and on and on.

6. Earn extra credit by being brief. Speech is silver; silence is golden. While having a single thought in your head may mark an improvement over most impromptu public prayers, holding yourself to just the one, or at most two or three, could save you from becoming annoyingly long-winded. The way of virtue lies not in having much to say, or saying many words, or filling many minutes, but in getting right to the point and making it pointedly.

It isn't enough to sit down and shut up when you've run out of things to say; it is just as important to stop short of saying more than necessary. Those who asked you to stand up probably didn't mean to hear you rattle off a harangue listing all 1,001 sins of spiritual pride; they will thank you for restricting it to a statement of the general topic and a request for help staying humble by the Lord who knows all about that.

7. Fight the cliche. Contend for all you're worth against the besetting sin of triteness. If the whole point of being required to pray off the cuff is to avoid vain repetition of empty formulas, whence comes this wasting illness of constantly repeating the phrases "Father God" and "we just want"? (These are only a couple examples.) The "Our Father" addresses God with more spiritual depth, and it doesn't come off sounding like a whiny excuse. But if you're bound and determined to ignore Jesus' command to "Pray this way," then at least engage your native reason.

Not that I'm accepting, even for the sake of argument, the assumption that Jesus forbids the slightest taint of ritual; but if you're going to go with that assumption, then when you repeat such faddish mumbo-jumbo you are in effect sinning against your own conscience. To scurrilously misapply Luther's words, if you must sin, sin boldly and use the rituals Christ Himself instituted rather than those popularized by mediocre religious pundits of our time. Or, at a hazard, come up with a wider variety of synonyms for "Father God" and "we just want." You don't have to read them out loud, but those collects I mentioned can help you collect a nice assortment of those synonyms, such as "Heavenly Father" and "we beseech you."

8. Act like you believe. Pray with assurance. Don't whine pitifully. Don't emote dramatically (unless you can't help it). Don't cajole God like a sullen teenager who already knows before he asks his Dad for the car keys that the likeliest answer will be No. Don't argue like a lawyer who has to convince a jury with an airtight case. To be sure, there is Tip No. 9 to contend with, but don't let that stop you from following Jesus' example, again in the Our Father, and submitting your requests to God with boldness and confidence. "Dear God, give us this, grant us that, protect us from the other thing, and because we know You can and because we know You care we all say Amen."

9. Don't be presumptuous. Be careful to check your demands against the revealed and hidden will of God. If what you're going to ask for runs contrary to God's revealed will, swallow it and reconsider. If what you're going to ask for may or may not be His will - and here it helps to have done your homework as per Tip No. 3 - hearken to Jesus' example and conclude, "Not our will, but Your will be done."

In Miracles, C. S. Lewis makes an interesting case that because God is all-knowing and we are not, we can pray for a result that has already happened (only we don't know about it) without falling guilty of tempting God. For example, we can pray that Grandma made it on the plane from which we hope to collect her at the airport in a little while, even after the plane has departed, because even though that has already either happened or not, from our point of view it is still an open question while before God all of time lies open like a book. He, Lewis says, can take prayers received at 10 a.m. into account while shaping the events of 9 a.m.

That's a mindblowing idea, and a wonderful comfort, but it doesn't give us a blank check to tempt God. So be careful not to demand anything of him in prayer that is frustrated by our own deliberate actions, or that conflicts with what we know about Him, or that requires Him to reveal more about His will for our contingent reality than He has promised to reveal at this time. Be careful, for example, not to attempt to blackmail God into doing favors for us, or giving us signs, or fulfilling our desires, in order to justify our faith in Him. If He hasn't promised it in so many words, we submit it to His loving Fatherly will and we accept whatever answer He gives us, even if it be "No."

10. Don't Actually Be an Ass. You can't fix stupid. You can't train pigs to sing opera; you'll only ruin the music and annoy the pigs. And it is futile to expect false teachers and misinterpreters of Scripture to straighten up for even one little prayer.

I am learning to think of biblical hermeneutics as a set of philosophical axioms that are permanently fixed in one's mind, in many cases before an exegete even begins to approach the text. No argument is likely to alter the way they think about things once they have begun. So on a certain level, it is pointless to suggest that to pray in public without sounding like an ass it helps not to be one, or to advise them not to mess it all up by applying bad theology and twisted biblical exegesis to the task of prayer. They'll teach what they teach and read the text the way they read it and that's that. So what this tip really amounts to is posterior protection. Did you follow all my tips and still couldn't pray your way out of square corner? You may want to consider the possibility that your problem goes deeper and there is no ten-step process to fix it. Instead of advice, I can only offer the prayer that God will operate on you to "cast down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:5).

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Useful Hymns

This isn't going to be a review, since I'm the author of the book and that would constitute a conflict of interest. I just want to let it be known that one of the projects that has been taking me away from this blog lately is now for sale at Lulu. May I recommend Useful Hymns by yours truly. You can buy it here for $10 a copy.

The Lulu blurb (which I also wrote) describes it as: "100 hymns for worship, prayer, and instruction in the Lutheran home, school, or church. Rich in style and spirituality, the poems, melodies and settings in this book are the fruit of 25 years of work by a theologically trained composer and author. Every hymn is founded on trust in the power of God's promises in Christ."

The texts of the hymns, minus a few corrections I made in the printed proof, can all be found elsewhere in this blog by anyone who has time to search for them. I think the book pulls them together into a pretty attractive package.

It's a coil-bound, 6-by-9-inch paperback, 227 pages in black and white, with each hymn accompanied by a melody (only) and an appendix containing harmonized arrangements of all the tunes in ABC order. The book also features a table of contents listing the hymns by title, a brief preface, an index of hymn texts by first line, and tune indexes by title and meter.

Many of the hymn tunes and arrangements are also my original work, though I used several old tunes that I thought deserved to be revived and I based some of my new tunes on older models. I also harmonized a handful of pre-existing tunes.

The reason I am publishing my collected hymns is that I believe this is the way the church's hymnody should grow, and realistically does grow. I am not convinced the best way to introduce new hymns to the world is to spring them on an unsuspecting church body in a new pew hymnal, having either commissioned them for the book or accepted submissions. This way lies the crop of hymns never seen in print before or since the one hymnal in which they appeared, and seldom used even in that book.

I think the church should tell hymnal editors what the contents of its hymn-book should be, not the other way around; otherwise space is wasted that could have been better used printing a tried and tested hymn. And in my opinion, the place to try them and test them is in a book like Useful Hymns, where an author puts his work out there for the church to judge. Perhaps, God willing, one or two of the hundred hymns in my book will go to the hearts of enough people that the next generation of hymnal editors will see fit to include them.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
by Alan Bradley
Recommended Ages: 13+

This mystery novel won a Debut Dagger Award for its author and has become the first of at least seven Flavia de Luce novels, from its immediate sequel The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag to the 2015 release As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust. I took time out of Patrick Taylor's Irish Country series to enjoy the audiobook read by Jayne Entwistle. For lovers of mystery, kid-friendly fiction that does not talk down to children, and the romance of the English countryside circa 1950, it's the total package. I was fully entertained and hope, provided I can find them in the library, to read the rest of the series in order.

Eleven-year-old Flavia lives in her family's old baronial estate with her two older sisters, her absent-minded widower father, and a shell-shocked family retainer named Dogger. Besides them, her daily circle also includes a plump pious neighborhood woman who comes in to cook the meals. Her passion is chemistry, especially the concoction of poisons. But when a dying stranger blows his last poison-scented breath into her face one morning in the cucumber patch, Flavia switches tracks and becomes a sleuth. She has to prove, for one thing, that her father is innocent of the crime for which the police have arrested him.

It all ties together with the death of a boys' schoolmaster thirty years ago and the theft of a rare postage stamp. What it all has to do with Father, and who really done it, is going to be hard for Flavia to prove when she doesn't have the police's access to the physical evidence. All she has is old newspapers, chats with people who have no idea what they witnessed, and a strange discovery among the dead man's luggage. As she pushes closer to the truth, she finds herself in terrible danger, from the treacherous roof-tiles of a bell tower where a murder took place to the pit at the bottom of a shed where a killer holds her in his power.

Flavia's vulnerability made my heart go out to her. Her strength and spirit made me cheer for her. Her touch of evil genius made me a little afraid of her. And her keen mind made her an extraordinary crime-solver, especially for her age. The mystery is very straightforward, set in a novel whose simple structure never tries the reader's patience or wastes the reader's time. And yet it takes time to be funny, informative, touching, and as its well-shaped climax emerges, more and more intense. I have high expectations for the whole series.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

'Our pay is puppy kisses,' says Weigel

Here is a feature story I wrote for the newspaper that could not be printed due to lack of space and the low priority set on it by the fact that the subject of the story had been written about more than once in the last handful of years. Oh, well. I thought it was a good story, so may it live on here!
Carol Sue Weigel accepts a puppy kiss from Thor, a three month old Labrador-shepherd mix, Tuesday, Dec. 30 at the Stover Animal Shelter. Thor’s adoptive family returned him for a refund due to sickness. “He’s fine now,” said Weigel.
Many people may not know it, but Osage Valley Animal Rescue, Inc., of Stover - also known as the Stover Animal Shelter - is the only organization in Morgan County that finds homes for abused, neglected, abandoned and stray animals.

Its closest colleague is the STAFF Animal Shelter in Sunrise Beach, across the Camden County line. There was an Animal Orphanage in Versailles, but it went out of business.

Carol Sue Weigel, director and president of the board at the Stover shelter, said as of Wednesday, Dec. 31, her organization had placed 2,100 animals in either adoptive homes or shelters in bigger cities where they stood a better chance of being adopted.

She related the story of a coon hound whose new owner didn’t think he could hunt since he had been neutered. “Try him and if he doesn’t work out, we’ll give you a refund,” Weigel told him. The owner tried the dog out at a treeing contest, and he won.

“Of course he won,” Weigel laughed. “He didn’t have anything else on his mind!”

Weigel grew up on a farm surrounded by hounds and horses. Her father, Clarence Burkee, was an auctioneer at the sale barn in Versailles, and he kept fox hounds.

This may explain Weigel’s close connection with animals. At age 76 she still counts hunting, fishing, and handling animals among her hobbies.

She continued to ride horses until a few years ago. 2014 was the first time in 51 years she didn’t go deer hunting. Her last kill, two years ago, was a 10 point buck.

As for her own pets, she said, “I’m down to three dogs and one cat.”

Those are besides the two rooms of puppies and kittens she cares for at the shelter, plus the large basement kennel for smaller dogs, plus the shaded outdoor pen for larger dogs, all nestled beneath a thrift shop off Highway 52 at the west end of Stover.

Folks as close as Versailles may not know it’s there. But people regularly travel from Kansas City and St. Louis to adopt pets there. Many of them find their future furry friends through photos and descriptions posted on, a nationwide animal adoption website.

“I’ve had people drive here from Minnesota for adoptions,” said Weigel. “I’ve had them drive from Chicago. I’ve had them drive from Tulsa, Okla.”

A map in the thrift shop upstairs bristles with pushpins showing places where animals have gone from the Stover shelter. When last checked there were pushpins in 38 states, plus two in Canada.

Many of the adoptions have been local, but an important part of the shelter’s mission has been to move as many pets as possible to rescue groups that can put them on a faster track for adoption.

“Some dogs have been here as long as two years,” said Weigel.

They come to the shelter in a variety of ways.

Some animals are left on the shelter’s doorstep. Others are found abandoned in the country and brought in by concerned residents, or caught running wild by law enforcement. Many feral kittens have been collected from live traps. And occasionally a pet owner dies and leaves the animals behind.

Then there are the sad cases when a family can’t, or won’t, care properly for their pets. Weigel said she has been to court to testify against people whose abused and neglected animals she helped.

Weigel and her coworkers take the animals in, bathe them, give them flea tablets and vaccine shots, worm them, and have them spayed or neutered. Sick animals also get treated by a vet.

Beyond that, it’s amazing what regular food, water, and cleaning of the pen can do for the health and happiness of a pet.

One of Weigel’s favorite success stories featured an abandoned Chihuahua named Miracle - actually the name on her vaccination tags when she was rescued. The name became more appropriate afterward.

Miracle’s hind legs had been amputated due to a birth defect. When she was rescued, neglect had left her flea infested, and her leg stumps had open wounds.

By the time Miracle was adopted on Christmas Eve 2012, Weigel said, “She turned into the most loving little dog you ever wanted to see.”

The dog’s forever friend, Patricia Kirscht of Ford City, Pa., fitted Miracle with wheels to replace her hind legs. Miracle went on to become a therapy dog spreading affection and cheer to patients at Armstrong County Memorial Hospital in Kittanning, Pa.

Finding homes and rescues to house the animals is a big part of the shelter’s mission.

“Thank God for Katie and Jennifer,” Weigel said, speaking of two women in the Kansas City area who spend a lot of time arranging to move dogs to rescue groups such as Secondhand Hounds in Minnesota.

Another organization called Care Transport provides a connection between Kansas City and Denver, Colo. Many dogs from Stover have been placed in Colorado rescues over the years.

Some rescue groups specialize in finding homes for particular breeds. For example, there are rescues catering to basset hounds, retrievers, Labradors, and border collies.

Some of these rescues rely on families to foster animals awaiting adoption. Now and then, a foster animal becomes a permanent pet. Weigel said this is happening right now with a Wyoming woman, who had fostered a former Stover dog on behalf of a rescue group in Colorado.

Even with the help of other groups and concerned individuals, caring for so many animals costs a lot of money and manpower. How have Weigel and the shelter’s other friends kept it going these last eight years?

“The biggest helps,” Weigel said, “have been donations from generous animal lovers, and good volunteers.”

As a 501-c3 non-profit organization, the shelter does not have to pay taxes, and major donations and estate endowments can be claimed as tax deductions.

Weigel opened her pocketbook and showed some of the donation checks received over the past week. One came from a couple in Lee’s Summit. Another came from an organization in Tucson, Ariz. that had adopted one of the shelter’s dogs. Then there was a check from a couple in Smithton.

Adoption fees bring in a little income, but $95 is cheap compared to the $150 or more some shelters charge. It’s even cheaper considering it includes the cost of spaying or neutering the animal, or at least a voucher for part of the cost of the procedure if the animal is too young to be fixed when adopted.

When dogs are given up for adoption, or shipped from other towns without rescues of their own, the shelter asks for a donation, though it isn’t mandatory.

The shelter has a contract with the City of Stover to handle strays the police pick up. It has also taken more than 200 dogs from the Versailles city pound.

The shelter is also partly supported by the thrift shop upstairs.

Aside from that, keeping the shelter solvent is largely a matter of cost control.

“We’re an all volunteer group,” Weigel explained. “Our pay is puppy kisses.”

The dedication of the shelter’s board and volunteer staff give her hope the shelter will continue even when she can’t be there.

When Weigel slipped and broke her hip in December 2013, she worried what would happen to the shelter while she was laid up. But Elaine Jones, the thrift shop clerk, came to the rescue.

“She stepped right in and was a big help,” said Weigel. “I don’t know what we’d have done without her.”

Another hopeful sign, she said, is that the shelter has a good board of directors. Besides Elaine and herself, the members include Rick Everhart, Doug Catliff, and Barb Ulmer.

“They’re all animal lovers,” said Weigel.

It also helps that the Warsaw Veterinary Clinic gives them a price break on spay-neuter services. Other organizations they work with, such as Care Transport, offer their services for a donation as small as $10.

Even the building that houses the thrift shop was a freebie. Built in two sections in 1968 and 1986, it served as the Scrivner-Morrow Funeral Home until the owners decided to demolish it and rebuild.

Weigel said she discussed it with Honey Scrivner and Doug and Jamie Morrow, and they offered to donate the building if she could have it moved before the demolition date.

With the help of a Foristell company called Expert House Movers, the building was moved in July 2009 to its present site at 709 West Fourth Street. At first it was propped up on stilts while the basement under it was dug and poured.

After a few adjustments to make it all fit together, the thrift shop opened in the old funeral parlor. Meantime the downstairs area was furnished with a raised tub for bathing animals, an office and supply room, and roomy cages and pens for the dogs and cats.

A rack on the wall displays a a wide variety of collars, harnesses and leashes for adopting families to take home with their new pet.

Among the striking pets awaiting adoption Tuesday, Dec. 30 were a Maine coon-Siamese mix cat and a basset hound-cocker spaniel mix dog.

Adoptions are for life. Families thinking about adopting a pet should think seriously about the responsibility before making the commitment.

There is a two week guarantee on adoptions. “If it doesn’t work you, you get your money back,” said Weigel.

But she also said she would think twice about letting a family adopt again after it returned an unwanted animal.

Rescued dogs and cats must be spayed or neutered by state law. Pets under six months old may be adopted though they are too young to be fixed. The voucher they come with is an incentive to have the procedure done when the time is right.

The Stover shelter opened in January 2006, one month after the Warsaw Animal Shelter closed its doors, because Weigel saw a need for another animal shelter in the area.

Even then, she said, “We knew the Versailles shelter was in trouble.”

Now the county’s only licensed rescue organization, it takes in animals from surrounding counties as well.

Staffed by volunteers, supported by donations, the Stover shelter has nonetheless kept its lights on for eight years. It’s labor intensive, but those who know say it’s worthwhile.

“It’s the joy you see in the people’s faces,” said Jones, “and the little animal as they go out the door together.

“Their tails are wagging, and even though they’ve never seen this person before, they know instantly: this is their person.”

Monday, January 12, 2015

An Irish Country Village

An Irish Country Village
by Patrick Taylor
Recommended Ages: 14+

The second of ten novels in the Irish Country series concerns a few weeks in the 1960s in the Northern Ireland village of Ballybucklebo, where newly minted physician Barry Laverty has successfully completed his probationary period as assistant to the town doctor, a force of nature named Fingal Flahertie O'Reilly.

Trouble comes early to the young general practitioner. The widow of a patient who died shortly after Barry misdiagnosed a brain bleed is threatening to sue, but the autopsy results showing what actually caused the man's death are slow in coming. If the case goes to court, Barry's practice may be finished before it really begins. Plus, the girl he loves is taking an exam for a scholarship to Cambridge, making Barry uncertain whether he wants to stay. And then there's the little affair of the Black Swan, also known as the Dirty Duck - a local watering hole that holds the community together. Only its 99-year lease is up for renewal, and the greedy guts who owns the place is thinking about converting it into a tourist trap.

Barry handles his crises by throwing himself into his work and proving, with patient after patient, to be a terrific doctor. He correctly diagnoses a rare muscle disease. He saves an unwed mother from bleeding to death when her pregnancy miscarries. He scores an appointment with a specialist for a man suffering from Parkinson's disease. And he plays a role in curing a local girl of eczema brought on by workplace stress.

The tale is told with humor, romance and uniquely Irish charm. John Keating's skillful audio-book reading doesn't hurt one bit. And as a special bonus for audio-book readers, there's an epilogue narrated by the doctors' delightful housekeeper Maureen "Kinky" Kincaid, including several recipes for traditional Irish dishes enjoyed by her charges in this book. I want to try the soda farls!