On Meeting the Station Man: Milli, Billy and Me

Pristina, Kosovo | February 21, 2017

Fleetwood Mac’s “Station Man” (Kiln House, 1970) came to mind yesterday when I met, Mili, the station agent at Pristina’s diminutive train station. I had no idea that minutes later I would cross paths with Bill Clinton.


I was there to scout the station for photos. I arrived, by chance, just before the train bound for Peje arrived. Passengers gathered on the platform and under the eave of the station. Some arrived by walking to the station on the tracks.



Mili didn’t want me to take photos at first. But then he learned that I was an American. “For Americans everything is okay.” This photographic carte blanche can be traced to Bill Clinton’s support for the 1999 NATO bombing of Serb positions in Kosovo. This is not a unique perspective here; most Kosovars I have met like the U.S. because of the NATO bombing.

Not far from the train station, on Bill Klinton Boulevard, stands a statue of a waving Clinton holding a document inscribed with “24-3-1999”. This is the date—March 24—that NATO bombing began. On June 10, 1999, the bombing ended.


Mili, who speaks English, invited me to return to the station for coffee. The conductor invited me to ride the train to Peje, which I can do for only 4.50 euro. He speaks German so my meager German will keep us talking.


I look forward to the coffee, riding the rails to Peje, and more photographs of the life surrounding the station man.


Mili is a nickname for Milaim or Fatmir. I will learn which one the next time we meet.



Whipcat: Mentor, Friend, Scrabble Foe

Whipcat and Game 3 of the 2016 World Series via MLB.tv | 28 October 2016 (Click image to enlarge).
Whipcat and I started playing Scrabble on the web between Iowa City and Warsaw, Poland, just before Thanksgiving, 2011. Sometimes two games at once and our scores kept getting higher and higher till they were consistently over 300 points each. I seldom scored higher playing others. But then again, we always brought out the best in each other.

We first met in the early 1980s at Cedar Falls High School (CFHS) where I was doing a Library Science practicum from University of Northern Iowa. Whipcat (nom de Scrabble), AKA Linda Waddle, was a librarian there. From the beginning we hit it off. She took me, a fledgling librarian, under her wing and taught me what it meant to be a librarian.

“If,” said Sir Isaac Newton, “I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” If I ever did a lick of good in the library world, it is because of Linda Waddle. I have truly seen further because of her. She taught me the importance of student access to information, collaborating with teachers, book talks, curriculum development, and technology. Linda taught me how to work with these ideas for the good of students and teachers and I am forever indebted to her.

Early on we started to argue about library stuff. Mostly we were on the same wavelength, however, when you put two strong-willed people in a library they will express ideas. So we argued. But the beauty about arguing with Linda was that it remained professional—it was about ideas, not personalities. Within those arguments we explored ideas about daily work and our profession. In doing so we forged a friendship. I went from protege, to colleague, and over time, to a dear friend.

I made a bone-head move after two years at CFHS and took a job as the director of the Fort Dodge Public Library. A disastrous decision on many (but not all) fronts. Linda grew up in Webster City and she told me that they called Fort Dodge, “Fort Doggy Bow Wow!” Fort Dodge is now and forever “Fort Doggy Bow Wow” for me.

As luck would have it, my successor at CFHS moved on after one year, so one day in May the principal, Dean Dreyer, and Linda, called to ask if I would like to return to my old job. With no hesitation, I said, “Yes!” I remember exactly where I was when they called: sitting at my desk, facing east, toward Cedar Falls.

Linda and I worked one more year together before she took a job at the American Library Association (ALA) in Chicago. She moved to Wrigleyville, just minutes from Wrigley Field. She reveled in being so close to the Cubs. She always loved sports, and now she loved her home team… her neighborhood team.

Even when we were no longer working side-by-side she remained an influence. I became active in ALA committee work for several years because of Linda. When she stopped being a columnist for the now defunct Wilson Library Journal she recommended I take over. I wrote   three years worth of columns for them.

Sometimes our Scrabble games were nip and tuck. Other times we annihilated one another. There would be streaks on both sides, but that did not discourage the loser. We were in it for the long haul. Whipcat couldn’t figure out how to send messages via the Scrabble app so she sent this email:

“I don’t know how to use that message apparatus on Free Scrabble. I meant to say ’Sorry–all’s fair in love and war.’

An email from our first days of Scrabble:

“Scrabble playing with you at the international level is really fun!

I’m reading the latest Jack Reacher and can hardly put it down to play Scrabble, but being retired has its advantages–the only time I quit either is to go play cards.”

And how she loved her bridge games. Perhaps more than Scrabble; she was in two bridge clubs in Iowa City, where she lived after retiring from ALA. One club met at an HyVee cafe.

I was once in Iowa City when Iowa State, Iowa, and UNI were all in the NCAA basketball tournament. She had posters for all three teams on her fridge door. She’d sadly take down a team’s poster once they lost. Her love of sports was catholic.

Regarding library work, Linda always said, “Dance with the one that brung us” That dance partner was books and so we “danced” while we played Scrabble.

Here’s an email exchange from 2012.

Linda Waddle <xxx@aol.com>

to me
Looks like we’ll be able to have a few more Scrabble games! I don’t know what happened, but I’m grateful to the good lord or the gods of apps that it’s working again.

Hope all is well in Warsaw–I have another favorite 2011 book–it’s The Art of Fielding.

Matt Kollasch <yyyy@gmail.com>

to Linda
ha! guess what. I am reading art of fielding now. …just started; it is great!
I loved American boy!
snowy snowy night here… see you on the board; welcome back.

[The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach is a novel of baseball, friendship, college, and coming of age.  American Boy is a novel by Larry Watson.]

Our emails show a lot of book chatter.

Her passion for the Cubs was flamed by living in Wrigleyville. My only visit to Wrigley Field was thanks to Linda who encouraged it and got us good seats. She suffered their disappointing seasons with decorum. She was, heart and soul, a woman who loved sports. Scrabble, cards and the Cubs were part of her sporting life. In playing Scrabble we kept a thirty-three year friendship up-to-date.

Whipcat and I played Scrabble—almost daily—for close to four years. I loved having her so frequently in my life. When in Iowa, I would visit her and we’d play with the board and tiles. The last time we played in Iowa City she won all three games (Arrgh!).

In September 2015, back on the app, I was on a merciless winning streak. We both loved the competition, but this time I was beating Linda game after game after game and feeling like the Prince of Scrabble, but then she stopped playing.  A break from our word-rich parrying was normal. However, this Scrabble silence persisted. After a few days I used the nudge feature to exhort her next play. No response. A week goes by, then ten days.

Then (yay!) an email from Linda arrived. Great she’s back. She was just tussling (again!) with that Scrabble app!

It was not Linda writing.

Dear Friends and Family,

It is with a heavy heart that our family announces the death of our beloved mother, sister, grandmother, aunt and friend Linda Lou Van Doren Waddle on September 28th. She died at the home she shared with her sister in Iowa City.

What..? Ohno… what?

T|H|I|S|  H|U|R|T|S|.

Linda joined Harry Carey too soon. She would love this year’s team and know everything about them. She’d gush about Joe Madden and have photos of Ross, Baez, and Hendricks on her fridge! We’d talk about the Cubs between Scrabble games. She’d love the improvements to that tetchy Scrabble app!

Whipcat, Joe Maddon, and Game 3 of the 2016 World Series via MLB.tv | 28 October 2016

I think she went blind toward the end. I wonder if that was when she might have given up: No more reading, no more Scrabble, no more bridge, no more sports on TV. Maybe she was just done. I don’t know, but I am certain this all would have frightened her and it hurts knowing she may have suffered . And while I was feeling princely, she was in her decline. Dying. I had no idea, but… damn.

I miss my mentor, my friend, my Scrabble nemesis.

So Cubs, win the Series for Linda, okay?

And Whipcat, too.


The Whipcat Scrabble rack stays on my desk until the World Series ends.

Fourth of July: 12 Songs

Hey, Babies, it is the Fourth of July

When I make a playlist I give myself constraints. This list had to fit on a now anachronistic medium: the CD. Sometimes a playlist can only consist of songs I own. Other times I will buy a song. I bought “American Girl” by Tom Petty for this list. This time I allowed only one song per artist. It does include three Brown(e)s though. And one Canadian and one Irishman. Still, good songs are left for another day or for your playlist, including: “American Tune” (Paul Simon);” America “(Simon and Garfunkel); “New York, New York” (Ryan Adams); “4th of July, Ashbury Park (Sandy”) (Bruce Springsteen), and “Good Ol’ USA” (Billy Joe Shaver).

There is some darkness in these songs, but in that darkness lives some hope, too. Pollyanna never challenged the status quo.
Making a playlist doesn’t either.

The Songs ]

1-  “Almost Independence Day”

The perfect opener for the list.

It is almost Independence Day
way up and down the line…

Even in Baku.

2- “American Girl”

I like the longing for something more (a slice of the American dream?) in the opening stanza:

Well she was an American girl
Raised on promises
She couldn’t help thinking’ that there
Was a little more to life
Somewhere else

3 – “Fortunate Son”

Todd Snider’s transformative cover of John Fogerty’s 1969 song repeats the truth about who fights our wars.

It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no senator’s son,
It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no fortunate one

4 – “City of New Orleans”

I love trains, America, Steve Goodman, and this line:

Good morning, America, how are you?
Say, don’t you know me? I’m your native son

5 –  “4th of July”

I like the upbeat music and the images Brown evokes here.  At the 1:40 mark Bo Ramsey plays some sweet licks.

We went went driving past the edge of town
With the windows down
We stopped to dance by a field
With the music up loud
On the fourth of July

[This song is not on YouTube but it is on (out out damn) Spotify.]

IC Arts Festival_BrownGreg_etal-0036-Edit
Bo Ramsey and Pieta Brown | Iowa City | June 2012. Click image to enlarge.

6 –  “Pink Houses”

Broken American dreams.

Well there’s a young man in a T-shirt
Listenin’ to a rock ‘n’ roll station
He’s got a greasy hair, greasy smile
He says: “Lord, this must be my destination”
‘Cause they told me, when I was younger
Sayin’ “Boy, you’re gonna be president”
But just like everything else, those old crazy dreams
Just kinda came and went

7 – “Democracy”

From Leonard Cohen, Canadian and “a lazy bastard living in a suit.” Play this song loud.

It’s coming to America first,
The cradle of the best and of the worst.
It’s here they got the range
And the machinery for change
And it’s here they got the spiritual thirst.
It’s here the family’s broken
And it’s here the lonely say
That the heart has got to open
In a fundamental way:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

8 –  “I am a Patriot”

I wrote this to a friend on Facebook this morning in response to his thoughtful post on patriotism:

Nice work, Phil. And if I may add, we should not allow the word “patriotism” to be hijacked in the service of nationalism. This is why I admire Steven Van Zandt’s “I am a Patriot” which Jackson Browne covered with élan.

“I am a patriot, and I love my country
Because my country is all I know”

9 –  “Freak Flag”

The most patriotic thing we can do is to take care of “our big family” and dear Mother Nature. The opening two lines are perfect.

I grew up in the shadow of The Bomb
Come of age during Viet Nam
Many thousand gone – I never did know why
Well look around – it’s so hard to see
What’s happening to our big family
I’m an American – I’m gonna let my freak flag fly – fly
Well my dad preached a message of love
I heard him say on the day he passed on above
He said “Use what you got, son, to raise a hopeful cry”
Dad, I heard what you had to say
I try to hold to it every day
I’m your boy – I’m gonna let my freak flag fly – fly – fly
Flag of green, flag of brown
Leaves in the sky, roots in the ground
I’m singing and stomping by the dawns early light
For every soul being beat down
For every child who sees the light and turns around
Come on now – let’s let that freak flag fly – fly – fly

10-  “American Skin (41 Shots)”

Springsteen wrote this song in response to the 1999 police shooting of Amadou Diallo.

A patriot addresses what needs to change in America.

Is it a gun, is it a knife
Is it a wallet, this is your life
It ain’t no secret (it ain’t no secret)
It ain’t no secret (it ain’t no secret)
No secret my friend
You can get killed just for living in your American skin

11-  “The Bourgeois Blues”

Ry Cooder covered Lead Belly’s 1937 song on Chicken Skin Music.

A patriot addresses what needs to change in America.

Well, me and my wife we were standing upstairs
We heard the white man say “I don’t want no niggers up there”
Lord, in a bourgeois town
Uhh, bourgeois town
I got the bourgeois blues
Gonna spread the news all around

12 – “Fourth of July”

The world grinds on. “The small dark movie*” of our lives can break our hearts and sometimes we forget what day it is.

On the stairs I smoke a cigarette alone
Mexican kids are shooting fireworks below
And hey, baby, it’s the fourth of July
Hey, baby, it’s the fourth of July

We forgot all about the fourth of July
Hey, baby, it’s the fourth of July
Hey, baby, it’s the fourth of July
Hey baby, hey baby, hey baby

Have a good 4th.

Your native son,

* Greg Brown from “Small Dark Movie” on Further In, 1996.

Kinks vs. Baku

I enjoy the edgy contrast between listening to the Kinks (“Village Green Preservation Society”, “Muswell Hillbillies”, “Stop Your Sobbing”, “Lola”, etc.) and being in the chaos of Baku as it prepares for the Formula 1 race later this month.

The former soothes; the latter disaffects.

“Machine guns, that’s a problem.”

I am making my way through the Parker novels by Richard Stark (pen name of Donald Westlake). I am on the 5th one, The Score , which was first published in 1964. There are twenty-three Parker novels and all have been handsomely re-published by the University of Chicago Press.

Here’s a short interview with Westlake in which he discusses why he takes on the Richard Stark writing persona. Westlake says that he wanted the language to be “stripped down, bleak, no adverbs, stark. The name will be Stark to remind us what were doing here.” The first name of Richard was from Richard Widmark, a hero of Westlake’s.

I enjoy Stark’s straight forward prose that moves the story forward with clocklike precision. And as this clock ticks, the tension slowly rises in these stories. Stark created in Parker a anti-hero who is smart, wary, and as tough as a box of nails.  Here’s a conversation between Parker and a gun dealer.

the score_stark
Stark, Richard. The Score: A Parker Novel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964, 2009. 75.

“Machine guns,” said the blind man. They’re expensive, machine guns.
I know,” said Parker.

“And hard to come by.”
“I know.”
“The government tries to keep tabs on them. It’s tough to find one without a history.”
“I need three. And three rifles. And eight handguns.”
“Rifles, handguns,” said the blind man. “No problem, Machine guns, that’s a problem.”

Ah, an United States where buying machine guns was a problem. Those were the days.

tommy gun400

Parker bought three Tommy guns from the blind man.

A Call to Prayer

Wednesday | 23 December 2015

It is 6:34 in the morning and the muezzin has begun the morning call to prayer. Usually there are five calls to prayer each day, but in Azerbaijan, there are three. The nearest mosque is a 20 minute walk from our place so the wind has to be right for us to hear the muezzin in the morning. The other two calls are muted by honking horns and the general Sturm and Drang of city life.

Old City Baku | 2014

Azerbaijan is 95% Muslim, but it is a secular society, and an amazingly safe city for its size (2-3 million people). There are a lot of bars, clubs, and general nightlife. You even see images of Santa and other manifestations of Christmas in stores and on the street.

I like hearing the morning call to prayer, comfortable in the knowledge that I will never have to answer it.

Nizwa, Oman |2014
Nizwa, Oman |2014. Click photo to enlarge.
Sheikh Zayed Mosque, Abu Dhabi | 2015