Prized Possessions

I got to thinking about my most-prized possessions. Which are they really? Which of my stuff would I try to rescue if the house caught fire, or if we had to flee enemy troops and bring along or hide our valuables?

One way to look at it would be to simply enumerate the most expensive stuff I have, the things that would cost the most to replace if they disappeared or would fetch a good price if I sold them. But YuSie and I don’t really have any valuables. No gold or precious stones or artwork or other collectibles worth mentioning, and our home electronics are simple and years old. So’s our car. And we live in a huge tenement building that’s most definitely not our possession. Also, even if I did happen to own something with a big price sticker, say, an inherited vintage watch or a piece of heavy celebrity memorabilia, there’s nothing to say that I’d be very keen to replace it if I lost it.

Another approach would be to rank stuff according to sentimental value. But I am unsentimental about material possessions. Sure, many old things I’ve got trigger fond memories when I handle them, but I never seek them out to get that effect, and I wouldn’t miss them if the option to seek them out were closed to me. Photographs of the kids when they were younger provoke a really strong emotional response in me on the rare occasions when I look at them, but it’s kind of knee-jerk and backwards — of course I don’t wish that my son had quit growing at age two, and I don’t love his current version any less than I did his toddler one. Old photographs of your kids really just invite painful nostalgia.

My most prized possessions must be something that I’d miss and that would be hard or even impossible to regain if I lost it. Thinking about it, I find it’s mainly stuff to do with my work. I’d be really upset if my archaeological finds went up in flames, but they’re not strictly my possessions, I just safekeep them until the Heritage Board’s administrative machinery has churned out a museum allocation for them. I’d be more distraught if my unpublished manuscripts and databases went to the great null device in the sky, which is why I make regular backup copies of the files onto various servers. I’ve got digital diaries and reading lists from the mid-90s onward, but I back them up too.

Picturing myself in the parking lot, watching the house go up in smoke, I can’t really think of a single thing I’d like to charge in and rescue. As long as my family is safely with me there on the asphalt, as long as we all still have our health and wits, I can’t really see that there is anything I can’t afford to lose.

What about you, Dear Reader?

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Those Haunting Memories

A weakness of mine is that the memories of a few embarrassing events in my past sometimes come back to haunt me and make me cringe with self-loathing. Very likely, I am the only person in the world who ever thinks of (or even remembers) these events, but I just can’t help feeling bad about them. Two of the worst have to do with archaeology and English, and so I thought I might as well dump them on you, Dear Reader.

1. Summer of 1993. I am 21, working my second season as a field archaeologist, and I’ve just learned about context-stratigraphic excavation and documentation methods à la Edward Harris. A group of urban archaeologists from Norwich come to Uppsala for a two-day seminar about these things. I am the youngest and most enthusiastic member of the audience. I am also one of very few audience members who speaks fluent English. And English has a strange effect on me: I am loud and talkative in Swedish, but for some reason become doubly so in English. The result is that (as I recall it now), almost every minute of the first day when the Englishmen are not speaking is filled up by my questions and happy blathering. At the time I am not insensitive to the fact that my colleagues don’t like this much, but I can’t help myself.

One of my colleagues later tells me off angrily. When the Englishmen visit our dig a few days later I apologise for my behaviour, and the guy I talk to, named Phil someting?, just laughs amiably and says that they are in Sweden to answer our questions, so I needn’t worry. Thanks Phil, I needed that! (And come to think of it, many of the other people in that conference room are now among my best professional friends. Seems they forgave me, after all.)

2. Circa winter of 1994/95. A green doctoral student, I attend a guest lecture by a highly regarded English osteoarchaeologist. After his somewhat nature-deterministic talk about early hunters in the Levant, I put up my hand and make a friendly but mildly critical comment including the words “Unlike you, I care about the meaning of the decoration on those pots — which I suppose makes me a bit of a wanker”. At the mention of the word “wanker”, the speaker (who has until then been nodding encouragingly) suffers a full-body spasm, turns crimson and gives off an involuntary falsetto shriek. I didn’t feel embarrassed at the time, but I do now.

There you have it. These are the demons that haunt me.

Won the Lottery

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Eight years ago to the day I was invited to a party one Sunday afternoon. I didn’t know the hostess very well: we’d only met twice, at a Mercury Rev concert and a library, and we’d exchanged e-mail addresses. At the time, I was eight months into a surreal period of my life when I was happily learning to be a dad half of the time and energetically dispersing overdue wild oats the other half. That Sunday, I showered and bought some flowers and went.

The party was a buffet in a little courtyard in Stockholm’s Old Town, and the guests were many and colourful: largely young bright exchange students. There was this one really pretty Chinese girl, a journalist, with a big friendly smile and extremely crisp Swedish enunciation. She and I were the last to leave. Our hostess later told me that another guest had asked her, “You know, that guy who talked so much, and the Chinese girl — did they get it on?”

They did! We’ve been together since that day, and I just keep getting more and more crazy about that girl. Living with YuSie has taught me so much that I didn’t know, about China and the media and the fact that I’m a family man at heart. I got a lottery ticket that Sunday, and I won big time.

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My Eugenics Project

I have the soul of a stamp collector. Some might object that it’s an unusually loud and psychedelic stamp collector, but I think it’s so. It shows in my research (data-heavy, fussing over terminological definitions, with a lot of statistics), in my attacks on nebulous jargon and muddled thinking in archaeology, in my affiliation with the skeptic movement, in the way I sort things into neat piles and papers into binders after throwing away as much as possible, in the way I do whatever my calendar tells me to do on a certain day, in the way I dislike sudden schedule changes and appointments with a “maybe”. There’s a strong systematising streak in the way my head works.

Reading this piece on the heritability of autism in Seed, I realised that with a different taste in women, I might now have been the father of an autistic child or two. Explains autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen (Borat’s uncle? cousin!): heredity studies suggest that autism-spectrum disorders may largely be due to an accumulating genetic predisposition to systematise. Have a little of this genetic factor, and you become a stamp collector or kick-ass programmer or me. Double that amount and you get Asperger’s syndrome. Double it again and you become an autist. The fact that autism has become so common in recent decades may not be due simply to better diagnostics: it may have to do with the radical post-war increase in female students at engineering schools. Nerd-on-nerd marriages were rare before.

Looking at the complete data set of women I have lived and procreated with (n=2), a 100% non-systematising tendency reveals itself. Both are smart ladies with strong artistic talents and a rich and complicated emotional makeup. Neither is capable of placing her clothes in a single neat pile or her paperwork in a binder with any degree of consistency. I’ve formed good partnerships with them: I’m good at everyday repetitive life, they’re good at taking a break from the daily grind and doing something fun.

And if Baron-Cohen’s idea holds, then my nerd-on-art-chick marriages have been beneficial in yet another way. I seem unwittingly to have been running a little eugenics project. Because my kids are very far from autistic. They have their mothers’ intelligence and artistic flair, they’re outgoing and empathic, and whatever they’ve gotten from me doesn’t seem to have harmed them. Maybe I can take credit for their social fearlessness. A tiny bit of Asperger factor isn’t so bad if it makes you unwilling to seriously consider that other people might not think you’re the best thing since sliced bread.

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An Evening in Suitland

Saturday I slipped on a tux for about the fourth time in my life and went to my little cousin’s wedding. It turned out a visit to another world, or at least an alien subculture: corporate suit land. Everybody was a lawyer or a businessperson with a lot more money than I’ll ever have, and I found it really hard to connect to people. Their holiday pastimes, the inflection of their speech, even the hairstyles were unfamiliar. It suddenly became clear to me how tightly defined my own social circle actually is in terms of interests and occupations.

So I decided to take a look at who my people are. They’ve all finished their studies and started careers years ago. How do my closest friends make their bread?

There’s an academic philosopher, two archaeologists, an acoustics engineer, an architect, an electronics engineer, a geologist, a government emergencies manager, a journalist, a mathematician, a physiotherapist, a science writer, a security guard, two small-business-people, four software engineers and two teachers. And looking at my journalist wife’s closest friends, there’s a journalist, a lawyer, a museum administrator, a psychologist…

I guess what happened Saturday was that I was momentarily lifted out of my middle-class academic pond and dropped into an upper-class business-orientated swimming pool. Everybody was very friendly, but I’m afraid we looked at each other with a certain mutual incomprehension.

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Why Blog?

i-bc0c5de5cc245df95bbbfccf3db6b0d3-XmasTree.jpgMy dear scibling and fellow big-nose European Bora, over at the one Sblog that comes before Aard in the alphabetical list, has “tagged me with a meme”. That is, he has handed me a coat of chainmail. No, he’s sent me a chain letter, with a blogging assignment. I usually don’t bother about these things because a) I’m afraid to scare readers away, b) I don’t find them very fun to write myself. But this time, the question is one that might actually be interesting to some people, and somebody posed it to me face-to-face recently. Why do I blog?
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Going Medieval

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There’s childhood and youth and young adulthood. And then comes middle age. I’ve been wondering when my Middle Ages are going to begin. I’ve left the Iron Age of my youth, for sure, and I have a feeling that my Roman Imperial times are drawing to an end. So, the other day, I found the answer. Three weeks from now, I will be closer to 50 than to 20. That must be my AD 409. That’s when the last remaining Imperial officials in the province of Britannia start packing their gear and no longer answer plainly when you ask them how old they are. “Thirty-something” is all they reply.

I’m going Medieval and feeling pretty good about it. The Middle Ages are a long and colourful period with many riddles that can only be answered by living through the era. And then? The Renaissance!

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Narrow-Gauge Mind

i-ef7ff2642e0ee7790611456b0fc89841-T304712A.jpgMany people who excel at something do so by concentrating on a few tightly defined areas of interest. A colleague of mine once explained to me that she has a narrow-gauge mind (Sw. smalspårig). I like that expression a lot: this woman hasn’t got a one-track mind (Sw. enkelspårig), nor a narrow mind, it’s just narrow gauge. In her case, it seems that the tracks of her mind lead either to Iron Age small finds or to reading mystery novels.

Another colleague once conversed with me for the first time when I was between marriages and pretty one-tracked on the subject of women. This friendly stranger listened patiently as I recounted my recent woes and victories, and then replied, in his cultured Scanian dialect: “Yes, I understand completely. Myself, I’m only really interested in two things: archaeology and sex.”

Perhaps anyone who dedicates their life to something as abstruse and non-lucrative as archaeology is likely to have a narrow-gauge mind.

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