Category Archives: PGS

Not an “or,” but a “both-and…”

Note: This is a modified version of a journal response to The Idea of Community in the Study of Writing, by Joseph Harris, and to a number of the ideas we’ve discussed in Dr. Heilker’s module.

Rugged individualism is somewhat overrated. People simply don’t exist in a vacuum, and I for one am not at all uncomfortable with the idea that I am defined by the communities of which I am a part. Comfort with the concept doesn’t necessarily translate to flawless functionality, though, and my personal history with my community networks is a little tangled.

My traditional camaraderie- and location-based groups of friends and family are not the ones directly relevant to this discussion. In these, at least, I am usually the proper mixture of challenged and content — I’m good at expressing emotion and affection openly around people I love, and generally know where I stand in my relationships with others at any given time.

My place in academic communities, on the other hand, is frequently awkward. Humanities, Science, and Environment isn’t a big major, and even on campus people are often confused over what it is I do. I am in many ways a walking contact zone – I’m smack in the middle of the humanities and sciences, and folks on either side don’t always know how to react. Scientists read me as a liberal arts person, which has been interpreted variously as Damn Hippie, Grammar Nazi, or Not Academically Hardcore. Liberal arts people read me as a science person, which sometimes translates to Environmental Nutjob, Raging Technophile, or Atheist By Default. For the record, I don’t consider myself any of the above, but these are all assumptions that acquaintances have actually made about me in real life. It gets a little weird, but the most exasperating part of the whole process is the constant threat of not being taken seriously.

When you’re in a small and actively interdisciplinary major (particularly one with a rather long name), you spend a lot of time having to explain yourself. Yeah, I’m not quite this, I’m not quite this, I’m some of that – oh, it sounds like I’m a walking identity crisis? Okay, yeah, thanks for that, Random Citizen. I got so fed up with the constant call to explain myself and my acronyms that I started getting simultaneously snarky and apologetic about my “hipster major,” turning self-deprecation into an offensive weapon. Or I’d say I was something else entirely, claiming I was majoring in Professional Writing or (never and) Environmental Science because those communities were easily identifiable reference points and it was easier than having to go through my whole spiel yet again.

Enough of that noise. It might take a while, but I am going to choose to view the tension between my interests and their respective communities as a strength.

I mean, I’ve always held this philosophy in everything that didn’t apply directly to, you know, me: my favorite art is mixed media, my favorite musicians cross a range of genres in their work, my favorite books and movies can rarely be pinned into one discreet category. Even my favorite foods are fusion combos that blend unexpected flavors. I am quite familiar with the concept of hybrid vigor — mutts are often healthier than many pedigreed animals, because crossbreeding reduces the chance of inheriting recessive traits in a genetically closed line. The list goes on — each new layer of complexity makes a subject more interesting, and the topic can be applied to  communities (and to individuals, I need to remind myself more frequently) as well.

A range of interests, motivations, and backgrounds within a group might lead to arguments and questions of identity, but it also prevents stagnation. Everybody is interdisciplinary in the greater scheme of things. The conflict and confusion that occurs when we try to categorize ourselves in definitive ways is natural, and it’s great fuel for conversation — the very thing that keeps our communities interesting, active, and alive.

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Grocery Run

Some items to consider when you’re shopping at the Denner:

+ Lipton Yellow Label. Yellow Label is the only caffeinated drink you’ll readily find in the tea aisle. Trust me, I checked. There are all the fruit teas and herbal tisanes you could desire, exotic flavors like red currant, vetiver, and rhubarb brightly illustrated for those who can’t read German. The Yellow Label isn’t bad, but I’m rationing my imported stash of English black tea all the same.

+ Haribo Turtles. I’m used to gummy bears and worms, but these are something else: dense gems filled with a bright gel in any number of fruit flavors. Lecker gefullt! the packaging announces, neglecting to admonish parents to watch so their kids don’t choke on the treats. They are delicious but difficult to chew, and if you’re willing to be uncivilized it is easier to rip them in half with your teeth. There’s probably an art to this that I haven’t learned yet.

+ Toast. Well, it’s called Toast, but you get to do the charring as you see fit. Small blocks of bread are pre-cut to the size of your palm, preservative-free and so inclined to go stale within a day or two. One variety is called Super Toast!, pasty-pale and distinctly Wonderbread-like, and the packaging is splashed with a stylized American flag. The rest of the packaging is written in German, and I am left questioning the target demographic.

+ Bergmilch. Though all the milk here is ultra-pasteurized, they must use a different process than they do in the states. It tastes distinctly of cow, like organic milk does back home, and always seems lukewarm even when it’s come straight out of the fridge. It’s fine for adding to tea but hard to drink plain, even the skim. I feel guilty for not liking the animal flavor — this is what milk is supposed to taste like, after all, and it seems I like the neutral taste of plastic packaging better than the reminder that this was once in something alive.

+ Lemons. Half the lemons are wrapped in matte black paper, numbered in red and faintly metallic gold. The labeling fits a bottle of whiskey better than it does a fruit. There is no explanation for why some are wrapped and some are not, but the crate of black and yellow citrus resembles a carton of overgrown bees from across the aisle.

+ Easter eggs. Or what look like Easter eggs despite the fact that Lent hasn’t started yet — shells dyed a variety of jewel-like colors, sitting unrefrigerated in clear plastic cartons on the shelves. The room-temperature eggs have alarmed many students, who can’t imagine a world where that is sanitary. I have been suspicious of any sort of egg for my entire life, and so they’ve simply been an amusing novelty rather than something I want but am now afraid to approach.

+ Nutella. The hazelnut spread has swapped places and price points with peanut butter, a fact the American students alternately rejoice over and lament. I am not particularly attached to peanut butter but I’m sure I’ll miss it some time in the indeterminate future. For now the novelty sustains me as effectively as the food.


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Bene cane (in the style of H.V. Morton)

The dogs of Lugano are as well-styled as their masters. The city is further removed from Italian nobility than Milan or Bellinzona, but the region as a whole seems to echo the Sforza predelection for canines. Sitting on a well-worn park bench by the lake, one can watch the sidewalks become a promenade for the locals and their pets as the sun begins to climb above the eastern mountains. People- and dog-watching are pastimes that may add layers of character to a city if the observer knows what they are looking for.

Most of the familiar breeds I spot come from working or companion rather than show lines. There are plenty of small dogs, but none of them are toys: there is a greater trend towards functional terriers than the neurotic purse-dogs one finds carried as bits of living decoration in American cities. A lady passes with two miniature poodles, which are beagle-sized and neatly lamb-clipped in contrast to the shivering bits of cotton-wool that represent the teacup variety of their breed. For the first time in my life I encounter a standard dachshund, a thirty-pound hound with bowed but functional legs. A person accustomed to the beady-eyed miniature type might be surprised by this sturdy animal, but dachshunds were originally bred to hunt badgers and this specimen still looks the part.

In addition to their conformation, Swiss dogs vary in other elements of style. Humane laws in Switzerland prohibit the aesthetic cropping of dogs’ ears and tails. While it is somewhat unusual to find a long-tailed Weinmariner or a Schnauzer with soft ears in the United States, both can be seen jogging happily through town beside their owners.

Many of the dogs wear jackets, an apparent frivolity that becomes practical for short-haired breeds in the frigid alpine air. The locals wear warm jackets as well, often festooned with more fur than the dogs that trot beside them. A woman in a long fox coat walks by with a small spitz. The breed’s sharp features are decidedly vulpine, and I wonder if the coordination between pelt and pet is deliberate.

A stately older gentleman with a mastiff cross pauses near the dock. Mastiffs and their kin, the heavy war dogs known as molossers, have existed in Switzerland for centuries. The tempera-and-paper illustrations at the castle in Bellinzona featured tawny, dark-mouthed dogs that could have been first cousins to the animal now obediently ignoring the ducks his master contemplates. Without the towering construction equipment just visible through the blue haze on the far shore, the scene could be timeless: man and dog beginning their day together on the shore of an ancient lake.

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Misty Mountains


Yeah, I could really get used to life in the Alps.

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A long-expected journey

Well, in four days I’ll be boarding a plane to Europe. The reality of the PGS trip only hit me yesterday with an intensity not unlike that of the asteroid at the end of the Cretaceous period, and it occurred to me that I am so not ready for this.

But then again, who is?

I went and saw The Hobbit again a couple of nights ago, and I really can’t think of a better movie to watch before undertaking a long journey (particularly one involving travel through the mountains.) It is comforting to know I am at least a little better prepared than Bilbo Baggins at this point: I have warm clothes, an arm shot full of vaccinations, a trusty notebook and semi-trusty iPad for field notes of all sorts, and a pack of interesting folks to meet up with on the other side of the Atlantic.

All things considered, I am actually in decent shape. Now I just need to convince myself of this.

(At least I’ve remembered my handkerchief.)

Here, have some music to finish packing by.


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This blog post brought to you by Google Translate.

Imparare un’altra lingua sta dimostrando di essere una bella sfida. Non è solo il fatto che io sto cercando di insegnare a me stesso italiano senza un istruttore diverso da un programma per computer, è solo che ogni linguaggio è così complesso che i vostri (anni mesi??) Primi di parlare esso sono intrinsecamente difficili perché don ‘t hanno molto in termini di vocabolario. Ci sono siti come Google Translate che possono aiutare in questo processo, ma sono imperfetti e tendono a parole scramble peggiori anche l’uomo più incompetente. Ti piace questo post del blog, per esempio. L’ho scritto in inglese, tradotto in italiano, e poi tradotto indietro. Mi sento come cercare di comunicare a Riva potrebbe essere allo stesso modo caotico.

Io continuerò a fare del mio meglio, ma mi preoccupo di quanto sta per perdersi nella traduzione.

In terrible inglese, courtesy of back-translation:

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