Yearly Archives: 2014

The Floral Leg

The first thing I noticed when she got onto the streetcar was her leg. It looked to be tattooed with an ornate flowering vine climbing from the top of her sneaker to somewhere beyond the bottom of her shorts. It was truly beautiful and unlike any tattoo I’d seen. As she came closer, walking the length of the streetcar, I noticed the knee. It was a mechanical joint. For a fraction of a second I thought it was a steampunk fashion statement. Then I realized that her whole leg had an un-flesh-like sheen and was whiter than her other leg. It was a prosthetic.

When I was a kid, losing a limb was not a topic for conversation. A man in my hometown had an artificial hand; he always wore a grey glove, whether due to shame or social stigma, it’s hard to say. I remember when I was maybe three, curiously pointing out a blind man on the street to my mother; she told me not to be rude. Disability—different ability—naturally evokes children’s curiosity. The other is more othered than we are used to, maybe more than we are comfortable with, and that evokes curiosity. What’s wrong with asking, with being curious about another body’s circumstance and how it functions in the world we co-inhabit?

Ambroise Paré’s 16th-century artificial leg design (Wellcome Collection)

Ambroise Paré’s 16th-century artificial leg design (Wellcome Collection)

London’s Wellcome Collection displays the design for Ambroise Paré’s 16th-century artificial leg. More recent additions to the collection include a pair of girl’s artificial legs from 1966, complete with little red shoes, and the i-limb, a high-tech artificial hand. People have been dreaming of ways to replace lost body parts for centuries, but these often clumsy replacements were hidden and as close to the originals as possible. Most contemporary artificial limbs seem to sink into the “uncanny valley”; they try, and fail, to look normal.

But it would seem that a new generation, adept at high-tech and with an encouraging creative flair, has new ideas about designing prosthetics. I found the young woman’s Floral Leg on the Alternative Limb Project website. This British company creates limbs that “stand out as a unique piece of art, reflecting the wearer’s imagination, personality and interests.” The owner, Sophie de Oliveira Barata, started her career in television and film special effects prosthetics, and has transferred her skills into the real world. While she continues to make realistic-looking artificial limbs, she has also designed a variety of “alternative” limbs, including legs fitted with stereos or crystals, a gadget arm (that looks very steampunk), and arms with snakes or feathers or carved wood. These are artificial limbs that, while optimally functional, very consciously do not look like the limbs they’ve replaced, but rather make a creative statement. These are replacement limbs meant to be noticed, meant to evoke conversation.

Sophie de Oliveira Barata's Floral Leg design (Alternative Limb Project )

Sophie de Oliveira Barata’s Floral Leg design (Alternative Limb Project )

I don’t know what happened to the young woman on the streetcar, but I do know that it takes a lot of violent force to rend a limb from a body, or to damage it to a degree requiring amputation. Bike accident? IED? July has been a cruel month, with wars in the Ukraine, the Gaza Strip, Syria, Nigeria… Hundreds, or thousands, of innocent people have been killed or maimed, either as “collateral damage” or with quiet intent. Planes have been shot down. Houses and schools attacked. Unprecedented numbers of people are on the move with nowhere safe to go. A lot of violence. In my mind, these events are somehow solidified into this one image of a young woman wearing an artificial limb designed to attract attention and evoke conversation. When we got off at Bathurst Station, I wanted to shout after her, “I love your leg! It’s beautiful!” but I couldn’t find my voice and she disappeared onto a waiting bus, with dozens of people looking after her.

© Catherine Jenkins 2014 all rights reserved

Summer in the City

Spring has given way to summer with a sudden shock of heat and numerous street festivals. While Toronto’s Pride Festival has grown over the years, this year we’re hosting World Pride (June 20-29) and expect to entertain over a million people! Some years, the popular Taste of the Danforth (August 8-10) has drawn over a million! Personally, I can’t handle crowds this big (unless I’m onstage!), so I get more enjoyment from smaller festivals. While festivals shut down roads, they make pedestrians (like me!) very happy. They offer an excuse to wander about, camera in hand, enjoying the day. During June, I’ve hung out at three such festivals.

The Annex Festival on Bloor was a neighbourhood street festival held between Spadina and Bathurst on the afternoon of Sunday, June 8. While there were food and craft vendors, demonstrations, music and kids’ events, it seemed a bit lack lustre. The late-afternoon rain probably didn’t help. No idea what attendance numbers were, but it’s a relatively small neighbourhood event.

Kids playing in the bouncy castle; Annex Festival on Bloor

Kids playing in the bouncy castle; Annex Festival on Bloor

Superman kneads dough at the Annex Festival

Superman kneads dough at the Annex Festival







The Taste of Little Italy was held the weekend of June 13-15 along College. I wandered its length from Bathurst to Shaw and back again early Saturday afternoon. It was notably busier on the way back, but I suspect it’s craziest in the evening. While I haven’t found attendance numbers, I suspect that over the three days attendance is in the hundreds of thousands, but it’s spread out both geographically and temporally, so it doesn’t feel particularly crowded. Similar to the Annex Festival, Taste of Little Italy has food and craft vendors, music, and stuff for kids; it’s simply more plentiful and splendid. Numerous restaurants along the strip extend into the street with portable kitchens, so cooking smells pervade the air. Bands play at four different venues throughout each day and evening, with music ranging from traditional Italian to rock; sometimes traditional dancers add to the festivities. At each end of the festival, away from the crowds, kids’ rides and amusement activities are set up. Because this year’s festival coincided with the FIFA World Cup, event organizers also constructed an enormous video wall inside a large licensed beer tent, so fans could come down and watch Italy play. Team jerseys were in evidence and clearly this year’s festival attracted lots of soccer fans. The highlight of my day was relocating Dolce Gelato so I could enjoy two scoops, one of cioccolato and one of pistachio Siciliano, a taste sensation I discovered with my Dad when I was seven and we were living in Rome.

Traditional dancing at the Taste of Little Italy

Traditional dancing at the Taste of Little Italy

Little Paco--an Italian soccer fan

Little Paco–an Italian soccer fan







Steam on Queen was the afternoon of June 21 at the historic Campbell House on Queen at University. As well as attracting vendors and entertainers, what I love about this festival is that it also encourages grown-up dress-up in vintage or steampunk fashion. While some of the vendors are local, many travel from out of province to sell their wares. Some sell vintage or handmade clothing, others sell jewellery or other trinkets handmade from repurposed watch parts and found objects. The entertainment is somewhat esoteric, including acrobatic rope work, belly dancing and a theremin player. Inside Campbell House, was a display of the inventions of R. Phinius Bodine (aka Russell Zeid, an educator from the Ontario Science Centre). Also on display inside Campbell House were some props and rushes from a remake of the 1927 Fritz Lang silent film Metropolis (at least that was my understanding… I might be wrong).

A dashing steampunk gentleman

A dashing steampunk gentleman

Very glad that this steampunk insect is caged!

Very glad that this steampunk insect is caged!






Not sure what mischief I’ll get up to in July, but I’m on the look-out!

Dr Zeid  accosted by one of his own weapons (by me!)

Dr Zeid accosted by one of his own weapons (by me!)

© Catherine Jenkins 2014 all rights reserved

Spring! And Conferences are popping up all over!

After a long and difficult winter, it’s finally spring: conference season. While academic conferences run year ‘round, there’s an overabundance of them when the winter term ends and before everyone takes off to wherever for research and/or down-time. I’d submitted abstracts for two, completely forgetting about a third conference that had been postponed from last year. So having done no conferences last year, I did three in three weeks—which is kind of nuts, but sort of fun too.DSC_0240

The Canadian Society for the Study of Comics held its third annual conference on May 9-10 in Toronto in conjunction with the Toronto Comics Arts Festival. I’d submitted a proposal on the medicalization of comic book superheroes, something I’m considering expanding towards post-doc research. I thought it might be a little off-side for them, but they went for it. I was hoping to get input from people who’ve read more comics than I have, and I wasn’t disappointed. Having taken lots of notes, however, I’ve set that work aside for now to focus on the dissertation. Can’t do a post-doc until I’ve finished the doc!

From May 20-22, I attended an independent conference held at Humber in Toronto. I’d never been to their campus and was really impressed with both its buildings and its green space. In November 2012, I’d attended a conference sponsored by the International Network for Alternative Academia in Montreal. Unfortunately, it was just days after Hurricane Sandy had decimated the north-eastern seaboard and wreaked havoc on air transportation in North America. About half the delegates weren’t able to come, and some of them spent the conference stranded in various airports. This time, in Toronto, with no major catastrophes, attendance was, surprisingly, almost as poor. A bit disappointing. What I really like about these conferences is that they’re interdisciplinary and international; we had scholars in English, philosophy, communication and linguistics, and professionals from psychiatry, writing, activism and acting (I’ve probably missed a few). People came from Ireland, Japan, Spain, the US and Canada (again, I’ve probably missed a few). The other thing I like is that although the papers presented are a jumping off point, the real event is the dialogue between attendees. There’s something exhilarating about a dozen or so intelligent people sitting around a table hashing out some thorny abstract debate. Supporting the conference’s theme of Creating Characters, Inventing Lives, I presented a paper called Embodying Story-Life examining narrative from the seemingly very different perspectives of patient narrative (drawing on work by Arthur Frank) and Native narrative (drawing on work by Thomas King). While there was some interesting discussion, this also brought me back closer to my dissertation.DSC_0239

Yesterday, I took a day-trip to Brock University in St Catharines which was this year’s host for Congress. With many of the major roads in and out of Toronto under repair and causing massive delays, I decided to take the train, which I prefer anyway. VIA proved an expensive option and had limited scheduling for this trip, so I took the GO train. I got out of the city without issue and had a smooth ride to Burlington, where I transferred to the GO bus, well beyond Toronto’s stagnant traffic. The problem is that the GO bus doesn’t arrive at the main terminal in downtown St Catharines, but stops at Fairview Mall. To get from there to Brock via transit requires two city buses and another 30-40 minutes. After two hours in transit already, I splurged on a cab; it’s a short but expensive ride. After arriving on campus, I discovered that I’d worn the wrong shoes. One doesn’t just arrive at Congress; one has to register… on the far side of campus. This was where the throng was gathered. Hot and cold running academics wandered the corridors and great hall, some, like me, looking lost, others hooking up with comrades they only see once a year.

I confess that when I first heard academics talk about Congress with breathy excitement, it sounded like an orgy—and in a way it is. Congress is a veritable smorgasbord of intellectual delights. Organized by the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, aka SSHRC, Congress brings together 75 Canadian associations and over 8,000 delegates in an annual eight-day interdisciplinary intellectual feeding frenzy. Keynotes, meetings and panels make up the conference’s +2,500 events and +5,000 presentations. Clearly, it was a very different experience from the previous weeks’ more intimate conferences. Although it’s a Canadian academic mainstay, I confess that this is the first time I’ve attended. The numbers make it sound much more daunting than it is in practice, as each organization breaks off into its own area for panels and presentations.

The Canadian Communication Association conference I was part of offered six concurrent sessions, so we ended up with about a dozen people in the audience. What was really exciting was presenting with two of my colleagues from Communication and Culture, Sara Martel and Yukari Seko. It made sense, as we’re all working around imaging related to health, but in very different ways. As I think we’d all intuited when writing the panel abstract for Health Beyond the Visible Surface: Visuality, Technology, Power, our unique work fits together really well. Someone had suggested to me that co-presenting with colleagues would take the pressure off, but I actually felt the opposite. When I was writing Data Ghosts Haunt the Living: Medical Imaging’s “Productive Encounters with Corpses” I was conscious of a sense of responsibility towards the panel, not just myself. Although we had some idea of each others’ dissertation research, engaging with it in twenty-minute presentations clarified how much commonality and divergence our work has. I’m hopeful that we’ll find something more to do with this work together.

I didn’t give myself much opportunity to explore Congress—maybe next time. Someone suggested doing multiple presentations for different organizations at Congress to rack up professional development activities on burgeoning academic curriculum vitas, but that just sounds exhausting to me. I’d want to have everything prepared well in advance. We’ll see what next year brings.

So now I’m back home. Tired, fighting allergies, but enjoying the increased sun and heat. No more conferences on the books for the moment. I won’t be teaching again until late June, and even then it’s only one course. I’m looking forward to having time to focus on the dissertation. I feel much better when I’m actively working on it. Pushing to complete the writing this summer. We’ll see how that goes.DSC_0096

© Catherine Jenkins 2014 all rights reserved

Old Friends and New Transit

This is my update for Marpril (March and April), even if that does sound like an Agatha Christie heroine. It was an overly busy winter and between an out-of-town reading, researching and writing two articles for peer review, teaching five classes—oh, and trying to write my PhD dissertation—I kind of ran out of time to post anything in March. So this post, on the last day of April, will have to do double duty.

On March 10, I was in Ottawa. I was invited to read at the Carleton University Art Gallery for an event celebrating the work of Dennis Tourbin. I was flown in, put up at a hotel overnight, flown home, and paid a reading fee. Poets don’t usually get treated like that. I felt like a rock star.

The flight left from the Toronto island airport. Calculating transit and the half-hour buffer requested by the airline, I figured that leaving 90 minutes to travel the maybe 40 minutes to the airport, was ample. The subway, which had been closed for signal upgrades the previous weekend (I was travelling on a Monday morning) moved painfully slowly down the University line. I waited 20 minutes for the airport shuttle that runs every 15 minutes. I waited 15 minutes for the airport ferry. I arrived at the island airport as my flight was gunning down the runway. For the first time in my life, I actually missed a flight. They readily re-booked me, and another passenger, on the next flight to Ottawa. But seriously, there’s no way it should take 90 minutes to get from the Annex to the island. That’s longer than it takes me to get to Pearson International airport. It just shows how truly broken Toronto transit is.

My old friend Michael Dennis picked me up in Ottawa. When I hadn’t arrived as expected, he wondered if we’d missed each other, if we’d failed to recognize each other after so many years. But in fact, we recognized each other instantly. He drove me back to Kirsti and his house where we spent the afternoon talking. Their house is full of art. It made me realize that I need to get the art back up on my walls. I took it down to repaint a couple of years ago and still haven’t gotten around to putting most of it back up. I realize that this is part of why I feel somewhat dislocated these days. We picked up Kirsti from work and went for dinner, then on to the main event.

More than fifty people packed into a gallery full of Dennis’s work. I got to see folks I hadn’t seen in decades, folks from Ottawa and from Peterborough too. There was John and Terri and Billy the K, Grant and Rob, Gilles and Larry. I was only in Ottawa overnight, so wasn’t able to see Peter or Sandra or Stuart, but so happy to see the people I did see.

I hadn’t done a reading in a while, and it felt good. Mostly, I read Dennis’s work, adding a couple of my own poems about his death. Being there, reading that work, to a largely familiar audience, was incredibly moving. I was also humbled that Nadia, Dennis’s wife, enjoyed what I did and said that my reading of Dennis’s work gave her chills. That got me thinking about how we are, in sometimes unexpected ways, products of our mentors. I learned cadence and a lot more from Dennis, embodied it without realizing. I felt privileged to be part of this event. Thankful to Dennis for pulling us all together once again; he always did have that kind of magnetism, that light, that pulled people together, that ignited the room with joy. In addition to the artwork and the words, he also left behind a strong sense of community. Thank you.

Waiting to hear about the two articles I submitted. Just received proof pages for a peer-reviewed book chapter being published this fall. More on those happenings as news comes available. As of this morning, I’ve finished this term’s classes, grades are in, and I can relax about teaching for a while. I’m presenting at three conferences in May, two in Toronto and one a day-trip to St Catharines. Mostly, I’ll refocus on the dissertation over the next few months. Some events in the offing for late summer, but if I tell you now, it’ll spoil the fun.

© Catherine Jenkins 2014 all rights reserved

The Human “Management” of Non-Human Animals

I was as strong in biology in high school as I was in the arts. When, after some trial and error and debate, I finally chose a path, I pursued the arts. When I see the direction biology has gone in the ensuing decades, I’m grateful for the wisdom of my younger self.

When I was in school, the notion was that animals existed as part of a food chain—with humans at the apex (of course). The human ego likes to place us at the top. This is the rhetoric of “Man, the Custodian of Creation,” based on the religious idea that men (and women and everyone between—humans), were placed on Earth as caretakers of what God (or Gods or Goddesses or Mother Nature or Gaia) had created. Given our record, we are clearly at risk of being smote. Whether considering wild or domesticated species, the way we “manage” non-human animals is appalling.

In practice, humans remain at the apex, so that if a human animal is threatened by a non-human animal, even if the human animal is encroaching on the non-human animal’s turf, the non-human animal usually winds up dead. But as we begin to understand how species actually inhabit their territories, we’re realizing that the correlations between animals are much more complex than we’d previously imagined. While we’ve shifted our thinking away from a food chain and towards a food web, these webs are much more complex than we fully comprehend or appreciate. And yet we have the audacity to continue thinking that wild species are somehow ours to “manage.” Through a combination of recklessness and ego, we’re doing a lousy job.

Image by Mansur Gidfar from

For instance, tigers have lost over 90% of their habitat to human encroachment. Wild tiger populations are down to about 3,200 individuals, and yet they continue to be killed by poachers and because of conflict with human interests. Three tiger subspecies have been hunted to extinction.

In the oceans, estimates for the number of sharks killed annually from overfishing, finning and bycatch range from 100-200 million. While humans generally fear sharks, this slaughter compares with only 72 attacks by sharks on humans in 2013, only ten of which resulted in death. The Pacific coast off California has seen a marked increase in the Humboldt squid population—an animal in whose waters it would be much more dangerous to intrude. While reasons for this population explosion are up for debate, some scientists think it may be due to shark overfishing, as sharks enjoy raw calamari. Sharks, like tigers, are apex predators; remove the sharks, and the natural balance and environment are shaken, sometimes in surprising ways.

But this isn’t just a pissing match between human and non-human predators. Elephants and rhinos are strict vegetarians, and yet they too are being poached at an alarming rate for their tusks and horns. In spite of sanctions and political pressure, demand continues to grow, along with the estimates of the numbers of animals killed. A shocking 30,000 elephants are killed each year for their tusks. In South Africa alone, over 1,000 rhinos were poached in 2013. Consider too that these animals are slow to reach sexual maturity, have long gestation periods, and usually produce only one calf that requires maternal care for at least two or three years.

And these are just a few of the species being decimated by human greed and ignorance. In Canada, we’re acutely aware of the plight of polar bears due to loss of habitat from global warming. Right whale populations are now estimated at about 300-400 individuals worldwide, due to competition with industry and fishing, as well as climate change.

While some organizations, like the World Wildlife Fund and Wild Aid raise awareness through education, support ecotourism as more financially viable than poaching, and work to protect species at risk, other organizations created to caretake wildlife use culling to control populations, rather than supporting natural ecosystems to do this work. I wrote about some disturbing culls a few years ago.

This is the kind of “management” practise that recently led the Copenhagen Zoo to kill a giraffe named Marius, publically dissect him, then feed him to the lions. The zoo refused all alternative offers, and the zoo’s biologist, Stenbaek Bro, argued that Marius was cluttering up the gene pool and that the public dissection was educational. While he’s correct that in the medieval era public dissections were performed for this reason, there is no possible justification now. Anyone who wants to see a giraffe’s anatomy can simply go online or read a book to find the information, without killing another giraffe or traumatizing curious humans.

But it’s not just zoos killing animals. American Wildlife Services are reported to have “accidentally” killed in excess of 50,000 animals since 2000, including protected and rare species. Some organizations are bizarre hybrids that support conservation so their members have plenty of “game” for “sport.” For instance, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation aims, “to promote and protect sporting shooting and the well-being of the natural environment.” This is the kind of statement that assumes that we have a right to “manage” other species and that we actually understand all the complexities of interspecies interrelations.

And it’s not just wild animals at stake. Domesticated animals are non-human animals that human animals have tamed over many generations. We have altered their DNA and behaviour. Recent evidence shows that cats have been domesticated for over 9500 years and dogs have been our pets for 18,800 to 32,100 years. To my mind, a non-human animal that we have domesticated, tamed, is now our responsibility. And yet we don’t act very responsibly. Toronto has an estimate feral cat population of 100,000-200,000. Some of these cats started as someone’s pet, but the someone who adopted them, for whatever reason, didn’t have them spayed or neutered, or abandoned them when they moved. Cats reproduce at an alarming rate (even in the wild, given adequate habitat and hunting grounds), causing the feral population to spike. Organizations like Toronto Street Cat, a coalition of rescue organizations, work hard to neuter these animals, provide them with food and shelter, and find homes for adoptable kittens.

What happens when such volunteer measures aren’t taken? Prior to the 2008 Bejing Summer Olympics, thousands of stray cats were killed. Before the Euro 2012 Soccer Championship in the Ukraine, thousands of stray dogs were killed. And before and during this year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, thousands of stray dogs, deemed “biological trash,” were killed. In many cases, these domesticated animals were dispatched in horrifying and inhumane ways. But with millions of stray cats and dogs euthanized in shelters each year, we can hardly boast of a superior record.

And this doesn’t even touch the millions of non-human animals killed each year in the name of “sport,” or “fashion,” or “science,” when better alternatives are often available. This doesn’t even touch the contentious issue of the billions of non-human animals raised and slaughtered for food for human animals each year.

Although human animals have enormous egos and a strong sense of entitlement, it is abundantly clear that we do not have the necessary knowledge to “manage” non-human animals successfully. And yet we like to pretend that we do. Part of the oil/tar sands rhetoric is that this destructive industry will put nature back just the way it was when they’re done. Unfortunately, we don’t know how to do that.  A recent short film, How Wolves Change Rivers, underscores how much we don’t understand about natural systems and ecological balances, how much we don’t understand or appreciate the complexity of the natural web of life. When we do such a lousy job of managing our own population, how are we possibly qualified to manage the populations and habitats of other animals?


© Catherine Jenkins 2014 all rights reserved