Wolf Hound and Dachshund

We interrupt this transmission for some adolescent self-examination.

My high school Swedish teacher – I’ve forgotten her name – played the saxophone and kept an Irish wolf hound. They’re pretty wussy creatures as a rule, but my teacher’s pet was extreme. She explained that though big as a calf, the dog had been brought up by a dachshund bitch, thought it was a dachshund and was afraid of anything larger than a dachshund.

I’m a bit the same. I keep getting these hints that people see me as way meaner, taller, more critical and better-looking than I see myself. To me, anybody above 170 cm looks disproportionately tall. When I think I’m asking a polite question or making a friendly joke at an academic event people often react defensively as if what I’d really said was “You’re full of shit and you know it”. During my brief inter-marriage dating period in the 90s I was surprised when this one fine woman told me “You’re unusual for me, I’ve hardly ever dated handsome men”.

Me and other people are in agreement though that I am loud and confident. And I can kind of perceive that if a person has the mistaken idea that I am mean, tall, critical and good-looking, then this will add up with the loud self-confidence to the image of quite an overbearing person. But in actual fact, of course, I’m a dachshund and I’m afraid of anything larger than a dachshund. Everybody should be able to see that.


White Linen Granny


Certain experiences during my mid-teens a quarter of a century ago left me with this strong Pavlovian reaction to a ladies’ perfume called White Linen. It’s not very popular any more, and not at all among young women. So imagine my moment of confusion when without warning a whiff of White Linen hits me at George Best airport, making me automatically prick up my ears — and I find that the wearer is a stout 65ish grandmotherly lady in a floral print dress.


Teaching 20-year-olds for the past term has begun to make me feel a little avuncular. But yesterday I had this sudden surge in my avuncularity. First, in the morning I finally took the step of shaving the sparse fuzz remaining on my forehead all the way up to the coronal suture. (That’s the lateral seam in your skull that you feel if you put three fingertips between your eyebrows and slide them up to the top of your head.) To salvage a little dignity, I’ve always been one step ahead of the male pattern baldness.

Then I talked to the heat pump repairman (31) about what it’ll be like for him to have his first baby in a few weeks (my first kid arrived in ’98 and is currently 6′ tall and counting). Then I ran into the new neighbour (28) and talked to him about how three out of four members of his mini-commune are vegans or vegetarians. And finally my 20-y-o niece showed up.

I should buy a cardigan and a briar-root pipe and start practicing my kindly guffaw.

Postcard from Hazor

My cousin Annika kindly forwarded me this postcard from a budding archaeologist just out of high school and on his first dig. I translate:


Hazor-Haglilit July 15th, 1990, 12:05 [Sunday]


Mainly I’m digging. At the same time we exchange some language teaching – my new Israeli acquaintances call each other “whitstevell” in passing [Sw. skitstövel, “shit boot”] (think about it and you’ll get it…), and I’ve learned things like makush (hoe), makushon (small hoe), benga benga (work, work!), yalla (faster!), malofofon (cucumber), and ma-eem (water).

I’ve got today off, and I have the typical travel anxiety, “Gotta see as much as possible now that I’m here!”. But I can’t be bothered. Not today, not with the heat. Instead I remain in the closed-for-summer Torah school where we are housed, washing (without visible result) my grimy clothes, writing a little, and I’m planning on finishing the book about Hazor I started reading yesterday (when I didn’t have the stamina to travel around either).

Hope your version of July is equally pleasurable!



What I find striking about this is that my hand writing and thought processes are pretty much still the same after 22 years.

Birthday Party Speech

For forty years I’ve been one of the most fortunate people I’ve ever heard of.

Starting from the global perspective, there is of course hardly a single country on Earth where people live under such good conditions as in Sweden. This goes for all of us here tonight. If we had ended up somewhere else, ourselves and our loved ones would in all likelihood have had to endure illiteracy, slavery, tyranny, torture, famine, war, severe illness and a very early demise.

With my slightly odd professional perspective I’m also acutely aware of how lucky I am to have plopped down not just where I am, but when. From an archaeological perspective there is no other period in time when people have been able to live so well as we do now. And you don’t have to be very pessimistic to believe that this is as good as it will ever get. Our great grand-children will in all likelihood see even worse environmental troubles than we do, even greater overpopulation – and they will have no fossil fuels to keep the wheels turning.

But OK, let’s ignore this greater perspective and pretend that Sweden today is a completely normal historical environment for people to live in. Then I am still one of the most fortunate people I’ve ever heard of. One of the luckiest of the lucky, as it were.

I have good health and a healthy family. I have a nice house in a verdant area. I have almost never had to do anything boring or exhausting to support myself. I have almost never had to obey orders from a boss. Since my mandatory schooling ended, when I was 15, I have told society, “This is what I want to do”. And with very few exceptions, society has replied, “OK, go ahead, here’s your livelihood, do what you want”.

With such an hedonist and individualist attitude, you might think that I would be a pretty lonely person. But I am lucky on that account as well. For all of my life I have been swimming in love and friendship. I am thinking particularly about my wife and kids. And you, dear people around me, have happily accepted my love and my friendship.

A flattersome listener might interrupt me here and say that my good relationships with people and my comparative professional success are due to good characteristics in me. But I haven’t earned those characteristics. I’m the way I am because I pulled a series of winning lottery tickets from the urn. I was born with a friendly and energetic disposition and found myself with loving parents who commanded rather ample and varied resources. Dumb luck.

If I live as long as my maternal grandfather did, then I have come almost half-way now. Living half a life the way I have is extremely lucky. But I’m optimistic about my future as well. People are commonly divided into those who see their glass as half full and those who see it as half empty. I belong to neither group. I tend to see my glass as 75% full. And so I raise this glass, dear friends, and suggest a toast to good luck, lots of fun and lots of love for us all as we travel on into the future.

Investing Your Twenties

A pop musician’s and a mathematician’s twenties are a precious part of their life. During those ten years of early adulthood, there seems to be a residual childlike creativity or randomness in the brain at a time when a person has had a chance to amass skills and experience. In some fields, the window in time when you will produce your best work is open only during your twenties. Take the Beatles, whose albums appeared when Lennon & McCartney were 23-30 and 21-28 respectively. Few would argue that either of them made a Beatles-quality album after the split, and looking at other bands, I wonder if they could have even if they’d continued to record together.

Since I think a lot about pop music and ageing (the first time I felt like an old man whose time was past was at ~22), I’ve been thinking about my twenties. What did I do with that finite resource, those ten years? Well, one common thing I did not do was try a bit of this and that. I was a professional archaeologist for the entire decade, if you count grad school as a professional activity. Luckily archaeologists do not bloom and wilt early. Two classic PhD theses that are mentioned among the best Swedish archaeology has produced were published when their authors were 35 (Ulf Erik Hagberg) and 41 (Mats P. Malmer).

As I wasn’t given a very well thought-out thesis subject, a lot of the work I put into the project had to be descriptive and enumerative rather than creative and analytical. One grumpy older colleague even told me I was squandering the best years of my professional life. But not being a pop musician, I can’t say that those years were of an unusual quality and should have been invested more carefully. Outside of work, I spent my twenties as I have spent my thirties, married and occupied with geeky pastimes, and I became a dad at 26. I guess I haven’t developed all that much since my teens, actually, which means that I am either a youthful or a stunted soul.

Dear Reader, to what did/do you devote your 20s? Are you happy with what you did/do?

Drugs and Me

In the podcast liner notes to his new album (starting at 14:21), George Hrab talks to Milton Mermikidis for a space about how neither of them does any heavier drugs than caffeine. I realised that in close to five years of blogging, I’ve never talked specifically about my own drug abstinence, though I’ve mentioned a few times that I’m tee-total. So I thought I might say a few words on the subject.

The culturally accepted heavy drug in Sweden is alcohol, which is strongly mind-altering if used in a sufficient dose and lethal if overdosed. Drinking is so common here that if you don’t, then it calls for an explanation. The only other legal recreational drugs are nicotine, caffeine and theobromine. Illegal drugs are so rare in my circles that I can only recall encountering marijuana (let alone heavier drugs) three times in my life. One was in the Netherlands and one was when a prim American pop singer lit a small prim joint before a Stockholm gig.

Uppers and downers aren’t terribly interesting to me even as an observer. But I do take an interest in hallucinogens, to the extent that I love psychedelic music, film and art. I call psych music my vicarious high. But really, to me hallucinogens are just a chemical short cut to absurdism or surrealism, which I love. The Beatles famously did a lot of drugs. But they wrote all that (drug-) inspired music between trips. And the ground-breaking psychedelic studio tricks on their recordings were thought out in collaboration with a producer and sound engineers who had to be completely sober in order to achieve what they did with 1960s equipment.

So anyway, my not doing street drugs is no cause for surprise: we don’t in my circles. Still, people are surprised that I don’t drink. For instance, though I’m 38, my dad is still visibly peeved about it, which is kind of sweet. People my age aren’t expected to get drunk a lot, but most certainly shop at the liquor store one or two times a month, and knowing your wine and beer is sort of an expected cultural competence. So why don’t I, when most people do?

Finding out why a person does this and not that is complicated. You can go for the conscious reasons behind a decision, or some unconscious one, you can search for a cause in the past that has shaped a person to make her decide this and not that. Free will is a fuzzy thing. I’ll split the question in two.

Firstly, why didn’t I start drinking in my teens like everybody else? Well, I tried a few times, and I found that it tasted bad and had no effect on me in the doses I managed to down. I’ve never been inebriated. Also, I saw a lot of other kids drunk at parties, and I wasn’t impressed. Drunk people are stupid and boring. I like being smart, and drugs dull that edge, perhaps permanently.

Secondly, why don’t I start drinking now or try to get hold of street drugs? Well, the original reasons haven’t changed. Drink still tastes bad and I still prefer sober company. But I also have a feeling that people take drugs to still needs that I don’t have. Sung Marilyn Manson, “There’s a hole in our soul that we fill with dope”. There’s no hole in my soul that I’m aware of. I don’t feel any need to take a break from myself. I’m not shy, nor do I need anything to help me loosen up. On the contrary: I’m already all over the place. My friends have told me repeatedly that it’s a good thing that I don’t drink, bearing in mind how I behave when sober.

I should emphasise that though I (just barely) feel intellectually superior to drunk or stoned people, I don’t see myself as morally superior. If you can enjoy using recreational drugs in what for lack of a better term we might call a “responsible” manner, without screwing up your life or crashing your car or beating your spouse or bonking the neighbour, then why not? Most people do, after all. And if drugs do screw up your life, I tend to see it as a medical condition, not a sign of poor moral fibre (whatever that is). A drunk whose marriage collapses is not a bad person who gets what he deserves.

Now, Dear Reader, you most likely do use heavier drugs than caffeine. Please tell us why! Or you may not do so, like me and George Hrab and Milton Mermikidis. And if so, also tell us why!

Update same evening: I forgot to mention that I have no problem with people drinking in my home. We always have alcohol in the cupboard, mainly because my wife drinks very little too so we never run out. And we often offer dinner guests beer and wine. There was this one guy though that I never invited again after he brought a bottle of green Chartreuse liqueur to a party of ours, drank the whole thing (shudder) and got wasted…

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Blackbird Evensong

On Friday the blackbirds opened their concert season. Here’s what I wrote about them four years ago.

Oh, still my heart — I just heard the year’s first blackbird serenade! I opened the kitchen window a crack and listened to it while having my evening sandwich and cup of rooibos. I love the blackbird. It sings at the most unsettling time of the year.

These spring and early summer evenings, when the light never really fades and the blackbird sings its heart out… They fill me with a nameless urgency, a desperate itch for something I can’t put words to. Watching myself dispassionately from outside, I can see that it’s just the spring rut. But from the inside of my little mammal brain, oh man, it feels like I’ll have to walk to Kamchatka to ever find peace again.

Turdus merula, “solitary thrush”. In Swedish it’s koltrast, “coal thrush”. I hope to hear it on my deathbed one day.

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Cute Train Lesbians

A funny intermezzo caught me Saturday on the train from Brussels to Liège. Across the aisle, two young pretty lesbian couples were seated. And they spent most of the ride necking furiously. I suppose that as a het male I might have been expected to feel some kind of perturbation or arousal at the sight. But in fact I mainly experienced a sort of avuncular tenderness toward the young ladies. Their joy made me smile. Any desire these shapely wenches might have inspired was checked by the evident fact that they weren’t interested in my kind. Then they got off (the train, you pervert) and left only a shiny green apple on the table. A few hungry bites had been taken from it.

Chasing after the Wind

I was brought up to believe that I am special. I was told that I am unusually smart and gifted. Whether or not this is true, it has given me a deep-seated expectation of myself to do great(ish) things, to achieve a bit more than the average Joe, to stand out from the crowd, to gain recognition.

Most people of course achieve very little that is noteworthy beyond the solid humble everyday victories of a quiet life. I’m sure that most people do not have a sense that this is in any way insufficient. I’m also sure that many of these average achievers have talent and potential far beyond that needed to live a standard life. They just don’t expect of themselves to do any more than the average person. I believe they are by and large content.

The skills and training I have are not much sought after. There is very little professional demand for me. This clashes badly with my grandiose ideas about myself. I achieve things that I am proud of on a small one-man-project scale, but few care, and I gain little recognition. I am frustrated.

So I’m thinking that maybe it isn’t such a good idea to tell your kids they’re anything else than just plain Joe & Jill. Because regardless of how talented (or not) they are, it is clearly possible to live a happy life without standing out in any way. It might be better for the world if every talented person were encouraged to achieve their maximum. We’d get more scientific breakthroughs, more great art and music, more just and competent leaders that way. But it is probably not in general good for people to be thus encouraged, since most will still not achieve much — only feel the expectation to do so. What good does it really do me, for instance, to believe that I should be a university lecturer and head projects involving thirty people?

Think about it. A child of sub-average or average talent will almost certainly not be happier if they grow up to believe that they should be able to accomplish great things. But nor will in most cases a child of above-average talent. Because smart people are a dime a dozen. There isn’t any great demand for them.