Category Archives: Social Commentary

Boats of the Kawarthas

The lakes north of Toronto are home to a panoply of wild boats. This handy field guide will help identify a few of the more common species.

Kayaks and canoes often travel in pairs, or sometimes flocks. They tend to stay near shore, preferring calm waters, and are most commonly sighted mornings and evenings. These quiet boats can seemingly appear out of nowhere; however, when occupied by youthful campers, can be readily heard across the lake. It is heartening to see that their numbers have noticeably increased in the last few years. Their unmotorized cousins, rowboats and sailboats, continue to be rare on these lakes.

Fishing boats also tend to stay inshore, believing that this is their prey’s preferred habitat. Unlike kayaks and canoes, fishing boats usually travel alone; however, like their cousins, they are also more commonly sighted in the mornings and evenings. Their occupants have a propensity for standing, often talking loudly, and are prone to alcoholic-induced behaviour. Because of their fondness for the shallows, they are frequently snagged on rocks, sometimes emitting loud swearing when this happens. Fish are wary of these boats, having witnessed or experienced release back into the water via a long overhand lob.

Moving through deeper water, majestic houseboats traverse these waterways at a slow, steady pace. These are often rented boats, piloted by less experienced drivers. They are most common on weekends, especially long weekends, when they can be quite raucous with loud music, alcohol, and fireworks. Although usually seen solo, they are sometimes observed docking together in small groups. Such clusters of houseboats often emit loud partying noises

Jets skis are increasingly common, usually travelling at speed, in pairs or sometimes threes. Although designed for a single rider, they can be observed with as many as three. As with houseboats, they are most frequently observed on weekends. These gregarious vehicles are noisy, and like showing off. Occasionally, one will stall in the middle of the lake, while another circles around, seemingly teasing or anxious. Rarely, two will stop for a conversation before speeding off again.

Another common weekend species is the jet boat. These excessively loud boats are recognizable by the high plume of water extending from their rear. Although jet skis share this behaviour, because of their heavier, more powerful motors, jet boat rooster tails are taller. They move at uncommonly fast speeds, and while sometimes seen solo, jet boats often race in pairs, or with a jet ski companion. These are competitive boats, that clearly enjoy showing off.

Common for decades on these lakes, motorboats, with either inboard or outboard motors, ply the waters, usually at moderate speed and volume. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and can be seen at any time of day. In comparison to some other motorized boats, like jet skis and jet boats, these boats are sturdier, take more passengers, and are usually quieter. In the past, these boats sometimes towed water-skiers; however, now they more commonly tow inflatables, frequently filled with screeching children.






Increasingly, oversized inboards, such as cigar boats, can be seen—and heard—roaring up the lake. These new hybrids are clearly an indication of the increasing affluence of weekend boaters, as they usually have only a single occupant, and like jet boats, can often be seen in racing competition. (It was upon witnessing one of these deafening races that this researcher had the fleeting thought that the male pilot should, “grow a penis.” This thought was not blurted aloud, as it would have been very unprofessional, as well as unheard over the din.)

Finally, spacious cabin cruisers are also increasing in number. The presence of these boats is another clear indication of the increasing affluence of weekend boaters, as they can take multiple passengers in comfort, allowing for sunbathing on the deck, and sleeping or other activities in the berths below-deck. They include cooking facilities, enabling occupants to eat while drinking, usually reducing their raucousness. Because of their self-contained luxury, cabin cruisers can travel greater distances than many other species, lending their stately appearance to numerous lakes on a given weekend.


©Catherine Jenkins 2017 all rights reserved

My Less-tech Experiment

I’ve been doing this (very informal) social experiment for the last six months. My cell phone died—again—except this time I couldn’t find a replacement battery. So I decided to go without for a while, just to see what that was like. Overall, it’s been very liberating. I feel lighter. I still have a landline (old school, I know), as well as e-mail and limited social media, so it’s not like I’ve vapourized completely. It’s just that for some periods each day, I’m less readily available. Given that I’m teaching some part of most days, I can’t have my cell phone on anyway.

I hate the sound of it ringing, and I hate vibrate mode even more, so most of the time I’ve carried a phone, it’s been completely muted. I check it when I think of it, and that’s been a much better way for me to relate to a cell phone. In the last six months, there’ve only been three times when having a cell phone would’ve been convenient. I’ve also noticed, however, that some of my friends, especially some of my younger friends, are less inclined to get in touch now that they can’t text me. Texting has clearly superseded phone conversation, although verbal communication is often more efficient. I find tech services in Canada outrageously priced for the use I get out of them, so I’ve also enjoyed the savings.

This less-tech experiment also caused me to ponder my relationship with cell phones, as well as when and why that relationship started. After about three months without, I remembered that I got my first cell phone when my Dad was dying. I was freelancing and often out of reach of my home phone, but I knew that at some point I’d get a call and that I’d need to get somewhere. A cell phone made a lot of sense for the kind of urgency I was experiencing. I kept it through my Mum’s similar fate. And then I had it, so I kept it. But now I’ve realized that because my introduction to cell phones was surrounded by anxiety and hypervigilance, these emotions have impacted my relationship with this technology.

I think it’s good to have taken a break, and to have figured out why I have tended to relate cell phones with anxiety. I have some travel coming up, and it’s now assumed that everybody travels with a phone, in part so airlines can inform you of delays, you can change or make last-minute bookings, and so you can show e-Tickets. (I once saw a woman arrive late at her boarding gate suddenly discover that she didn’t have her e-Ticket because she’d left her phone at security. I wouldn’t have pegged her as someone who could run that fast, but she made it, thanks to a short flight delay.) So I’m beginning to move in the direction of reinstating my cell phone, but with a shifted awareness that will hopefully make my new experience a little less stressful.

©Catherine Jenkins 2017 all rights reserved

Travel, Ethnocentrism, and Civility

When we travel, inevitably we bring our domestic notions of correctness with us. We all have our prejudices; whether we care to admit them or not is another question. My most profound moment of ethnocentrism occurred when I was standing naked in a B&B bathroom in rural England, trying to figure out how to coax hot water from yet still another unique shower system. I caught myself thinking, “Why can’t the Brits do this right? At home, or anywhere in North America, I can simply turn on a tap and, hey presto, hot water! What’s wrong with these people?” Most British bathrooms use on-demand hot water systems, which are considered a more frugal use of resources; however, no two systems operate quite the same way. And most British homes are not well enough heated to want to stand around naked figuring it out. The moment passed quickly, and I found myself smiling at its triviality.

When one travels, if one is open, one also sees and experiences things that are unfamiliar, but actually much more civilized than one is used to at home. The hotel signs in Bergen, for instance, were much more entertaining than those I’ve encountered anywhere else.

Hotel room signage, Bergen, Norway, 2015

Hotel room signage, Bergen, Norway, 2015

Ladies Room sign, Bergen, Norway, 2015

Ladies Room sign, Bergen, Norway, 2015

Men's Room sign, Bergen, Norway, 2015

Men’s Room sign, Bergen, Norway, 2015

Similarly, many Bergen public washrooms signs exhibit a humour one does not usually associate with public washrooms. The Norwegian sense of humour is apparent in such gentle touches.



Traffic in Lisbon was truly scary. Both vehicles and pedestrians view traffic lights as vague suggestions for maintaining order. In the main tourist area, traffic lights were often out, and people unfamiliar with the city skittered across many lanes at speed, trying to avoid injury. Lisbon, however, also featured the most civilized public washroom I have ever encountered. Not only was it immaculately clean, but as well as the requisite toilet, it also featured a bidet. A bidet in a public washroom.

Most civilized public washroom ever, Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon, Portugal, 2015

Most civilized public washroom ever, Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon, Portugal, 2015

In other places, sanctioned attempts at formality may be tempered by members of the public. This is notable in graffiti, which I often photograph when travelling. One of the most striking examples I’ve seen was this bust in a Paris park which had been augmented, perhaps as a political statement.

Formality Disrupted, Paris, France 2012

Formality Disrupted, Paris, France 2012

Venice is, without doubt, one of the loveliest cities I’ve travelled. A city with a rich pharmacological history, it still features many drugstores, both modern and vintage. In case you can’t find one open, 24-hour vending machines can fulfill your needs. These appear, inset into ancient walls, throughout the island. The contents include feminine hygiene products, but are generally heavy on condoms.

Twenty-four hour pharmacy, Venice, Italy, 2010

Twenty-four hour pharmacy, Venice, Italy, 2010

Travel seeds new ideas by challenging one’s “normal” comfort levels and reference points. And that’s a good thing. On return, new, perhaps unique, possibilities open for consideration.


Catherine Jenkins 2015 all rights reserved

Biopsy: Rhetoric and Intimate Pain

Who ever thought up the word “mammogram”? Every time I hear it, I think I’m supposed to put my breast in an envelope and send it to someone. Jan King

The anomaly in my left breast was located and first imaged in 2008, with a mammogram and then an ultrasound. It was determined to be a benign adenopathy; in other words, nothing to worry about. This finding was confirmed in 2010 with a second mammogram.

This year, I made the mistake of changing imaging clinics, which means changing radiologists. The new clinic is housed in a hospital, so they’re used to seeing the worst, trained to look for the worst. After the mammogram, the technician said, “Oh, there’s something in your left breast. Nothing to worry about, but don’t be surprised if they call you back for an ultrasound.” I respond that I’m already aware of the anomaly in my left breast. I’m not worried.

The call came the next week. I booked the ultrasound. More imaging. More radiological inspection.

The follow-up call came the following week. “We’d like to do a biopsy.” Umm…wait a minute. The anomaly had already been examined and dismissed twice. I respond, “If I can get the images from the other clinic, can we nix the biopsy?” “Oh, that’d be great! Probably, yes.”

The day before I leave for Norway, in the midst of conference prep, travel prep, cat-sitting prep, absent-from-class prep, I’m flying through the city trying to relocate the other clinic, get copies of previous images, and drop them off at the hospital. I tell them I’ll be unavailable, out of the country, for the next several days. They nod and smile understanding.

I return home to a phone message. “We’d still like to do a biopsy.” Okay, now I’m getting a bit anxious. I’m still 96% certain that there’s nothing to worry about, but the medicos, those authorities on my health, are concerned enough to make this request, so it’s only natural that I begin to feel a little less certain that everything’s okay.

I’m really not looking forward to this. There are no opportunities to ask questions until I’m lying supine, half-naked, vulnerable on the examination table. Ultrasound guides the procedure. While the tech is relocating the anomaly, I ask the two questions I’ve been formulating. “What are the chances that this is nothing to worry about?” “Oh, well, the radiologist reported it as ‘undefined,’ so it’s nothing that we look at and say, oh, that’s a cancer.” Okay, so that’s good news. “How big is this thing we’re talking about? The size of a pea? A marble?” “Oh, not even the size of a pea. The size of a really small pea.”

So, umm, what are we doing here?

Somewhere in here it’s explained that the “mass” is close to the chest wall, so they’ll have to be careful not to catch a nerve or the muscle.

The doctor doing the biopsy arrives. Somewhere in here it’s revealed that they’re not doing a needle biopsy, but a core biopsy. And not a single core biopsy, but three samples—from something less than the size of a pea. This ensures an adequate diagnostic sample. Maybe it’s just my interpretation, but I get the feeling that both the tech and the doc are also wondering why we’re doing this.

The doctor explains that she will sterilize and freeze the area, then make a tiny incision through which to insert the core biopsy gun. “This is what it sounds like,” she says, pulling the trigger. I jump. She says, “It sounds like an automatic stapler. I’ll tell you before I take a sample.”

Core Biopsy Gun

Core Biopsy Gun

She proceeds with her plan slowly, gently, carefully. This is the best one can hope for. When everything is correctly positioned, she says, “Okay, 1, 2, 3” and fires. The mechanism reverberates through my ribcage like a nail gun. I jump and tense automatically. Eyes wince shut, waiting for the recoil. My reaction surprises her and she waits for me to relax slightly before removing the gun that cradles a small piece of my flesh. I think that this is what a tree feels when a dendrologist removes a core sample, except my flesh has nerves and blood.

Satisfied with the first sample, she returns for the next, carefully reinserting the gun’s muzzle into the three-millimetre incision. I feel the tool move and tug inside my breast, against the freezing. Once everything’s lined up, she says, “Okay, 1, 2, 3” and fires again. A nail gun goes off inside my chest. Instant stabbing pain in my left pectoral muscle  writhing on the table  mouth open in surprise  and shock  and nausea  and eyes squeezed shut  and it’s not stopping  it’s not stopping  it’s not stopping  it’s not

Carefully, she removes her precious sample. I say, “I have to put my arm down.” Not waiting for permission, I follow this announcement with this action. “Okay, just don’t touch anything.” I’m still writhing  pain  not stopping  not stopping  not

She’s checking, checking with the ultrasound wand. I’m imagining leaving. Getting up and walking out. Then I’m imagining returning if the sample is inadequate. Better stick with it. But it hurts  it hurts

“I’d be really glad about now if you could tell me that you don’t need the third sample,” I say. “That’s what I’m checking for,” she says. With the tech’s help, they take one last picture as evidence that they have a through-and-through of the “mass,” like a lucky bullet wound. She says, “We’ve got everything we need. You can go now,” or words to that effect. My memory is hazed by pain. I apologize. Apologize for not being a compliant patient. For being betrayed by my sensitive body. She turns from the door, says, “I should be apologizing to you,” and leaves.

It is only then that the tech gives me the after-care instruction sheet, and I realize the extent to which I have been intentionally injured. Apply ice to reduce swelling. Take Tylenol (not Advil or Aspirin which might induce further bleeding). Keep site clean and dry for at least 24 hours. Keep dressing in place for at least three days. Be on guard for signs of infection. Expect bruising for up to three weeks. Avoid heavy lifting for at least 24 hours. This is the number for emergency follow-up. Ensure that you have an appointment for regular follow-up in 10 days.

I leave in a mild state of shock. My left pec is screaming. For days, my left arm and hand are weak, with reduced sensation and movement. Bruising is still apparent on my breast during the follow-up appointment.

The follow-up doctor is someone I’ve never met. To her credit, she begins with, “You’re fine. Everything’s okay.” She later acknowledges, “You weren’t worried, were you, but we made you anxious, didn’t we?” That’s right. I say, “I wonder if I had to go through this simply to indulge a radiologist’s curiosity.” She responds, “Probably, yeah.” The ultimate determination? It’s a benign adenopathy.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I understand that statistically there are some advantages to mammograms and early cancer detection. But that’s not what this was about. Some people have since suggested to me that this was to improve biopsy numbers, which in turn ensure continued funding. While I can’t attest to that, I do know that this wasn’t optimal patient care.


© Catherine Jenkins 2015 all rights reserved




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