Paper Boats

Our imaginations are wonderful places to escape from the rules and structures that define reality. Some children are incredibly fortunate to have both a vivid imagination and the time required to adequately explore their creativity. I was one such child, often building models of various vessels out of paper and embarking upon "missions" that would often consume an entire afternoon. One of my favourite pastimes around the age of 10 or 11 was constructing boats that were modelled on the large military and civilian ships that I could find in the family encyclopedia set. My models would rarely exceed 15cm in length, but what they lacked in tonnage they more than made up for in complexity.

Paper Boats on a Cold River

The first boats were quite simple. A sheet of paper would be folded in half with the ends glued shut. After the seal had taken hold, I would "open" the centre like a hotdog bun, attach a deck, and then cut the ends to be tapered nicely at a 45˚ angle. Once all of the glue had dried, I would bring the model to the nearby creek and release the ship into the water with the goal of following the craft as far as I was allowed to travel1. Unfortunately, the early ships would all tip over immediately after being put in the water. I had yet to learn about ballasts and keels.

As time went on and my knowledge of water craft improved, the models became ever more complex. Ships would have water-tight compartments where air could be trapped to keep the vessel afloat even if some glue had come unstuck. The best ballast was often the artificial gravel used with HO scale model railroads, so I would use that either at the bottom of the hull or — better still — within the keel after wrapping the plastic stone in cellophane. In order to keep the ship floating near the centre of the creek's winding route, a rudder had to be set at an angle between 8˚ and 12˚ turning starboard, otherwise it would wind up hitting the stones along the shore with every bend and curve. Masts were impossible to use without the vessel tipping over, so sails were out. Every ship had to rely only on the flow of the water to complete its mission. Of the dozens — or hundreds — of attempts, only two managed to travel the kilometre or so from the launching point to the King Street tunnel without hitting the shore or otherwise coming apart at the seams as glue bonds deteriorated.

It was fascinating work. The encyclopedias at home explained the basics of buoyancy and how ships generally worked, but the increasingly complex designs came about as a result of the extra study that was put into the effort. In my imagination, these weren't just paper models of cargo vessels, aircraft carriers, or passenger ships. These were water-borne craft that I captained, with a crew of people who were just as intently focussed on the objective. We had to make it to the King Street tunnel, where the creek would enter into a gated tube 3 meters in diameter2. We had to.

In order to build a ship that could make the journey I read every book on boats that I could find. The elementary school I attended and the nearby library had some magazines and books that showed a number of interesting designs, including some twin-hull concepts that would have made a sail tenable while also eliminating the need for a double-reinforced, complex keel to keep the ship upright. But these books were mostly about pictures rather than substance. The real breakthrough came when I went to the Hamilton Central Library on a school trip and looked up the technical books on ship design.

My adolescent mind was blown.

There were blueprints, complex equations, cross-section drawings, and pictures of yachts. I learned that a boat designed for fresh water would work differently in salt water. I saw manoeuvrability diagrams that showed very precisely how much area was needed for a ship of a certain size to turn or come to a complete stop. I discovered just how primitive and utterly simplistic my models were … and stepped up to the challenge.

For my most ambitious vessel, I would take everything I learned from experience as well as the ideas and concepts I thought I understood from the professional books at the Central Library to construct a ship that would travel from the "launching pier" near my school to the King Street tunnel and right on through the other side without coming undone or getting stuck on the shallow shore along the way. More than this, the ship would carry a cargo of one Loonie, which I could only use if the mission was successful.

The Planned Journey

For what seemed like weeks I toiled away on the ship. The hull was the simple part, as I'd become rather proficient having the paper bend and hold the best shape for the water. The keel was complicated, though. I don't remember how many times I rebuilt that part of the vessel, trying so hard to have the built-in tail rudder hold a proper starboard angle after the glue set. The decks were easy, and I even went so far as to have the Orlop deck made from a handful of carefully-shaved popsicle sticks. This sat on top of the in-hull ballast and would be where the single Canadian coin would be stowed. When everything was said and done, the ship was easily the most complex and most difficult thing I had ever built. My father was impressed with the attention to detail and asked if I was really going to have it sail down the Redhill Creek towards Lake Ontario, where I might never see it again.

So I thought about it.

And I thought about it.

And I thought about it some more.

While the ship never once met physical water, it regularly played an important role in the imaginary excursions I would enjoy from the comfort of my bedroom3.

  1. As one would expect for a child of 10~11 years, my father had set some boundaries for how far I could travel. As the creek trickled downstream, it would go under King Street in Hamilton, which was the farthest north I was permitted to go.

  2. The concrete pipe where the creek went under the four-lane busy street was gated, of course, to ensure kids didn't go in and drown.

  3. This was the last boat I ever built. Some years later, when I was attending high school, I had the opportunity to visit C&C Yachts in Niagara on the Lake, where fibreglass yachts were designed and built. During the trip the employee that was giving us a tour explained what it took to be a designer and a longtime friend of mine pointed at me and said "He's your man!". Sometimes I wonder if I would have been up to the challenge of the decade of schooling followed by a decade of apprenticeship.

Five Things (My Mother Gave Me)

Mothers — even the really bad ones — give their kids a lot of things that are often taken for granted. Aside from the obvious gift of life itself, we're usually bestowed with a plethora of memories that fossilize early and go on to have a noticeable impact on the rest of our lives. I've not seen my mother in almost 20 years1, but there's a lot of her that is visible in me. I look far more like her than I do my father. I think more like her, too. Heck, my lack of receding hairline is also thanks to her more dominant genetics2. More than all of this, though, there are five things that she gave me, intentionally or otherwise, that play a role in my life even today.

She Taught Me How to Cook

Before I moved to life with my mother from the age of 13, the only thing I ever "cooked" was toast. This was primarily because I was living the life of an only child between the ages of 8 and 123. My father would cook the meals and I would set the table. When living with my mother, though, I had to very quickly go from being a "distant brother" to "the eldest child", which meant taking on a lot of responsibility very quickly.

Mum being Mum, she enjoyed having long conversations while doing things around the house. Her reasoning was that a good discussion fostered closer relationships and made the time pass faster. By the time I was 13 my mother had 5 children, plus the occasional responsibility of my step-father's daughter. Four girls and two boys, with me being the oldest. Add in two adults and there are a minimum of 7 people to cook for come dinner time, and being in a large family in rural Canada meant that there would often be guests at the house in the evening, so dinner could easily have 10 people in attendance4. Cooking "enough food to feed an army" would take time, and I was drafted into the kitchen to help make this happen.

Washing vegetables, peeling potatoes, preparing broths and soups, boiling, frying, baking, and just about every other gerund associated with kitchens was done as a team for almost two years. She taught me how to identify the best vegetables by touch and smell, how to make tomato sauce and ketchup my hand, how to turn fruits into jam, and how to bake delicious treats. When I think about the times we used to make peanut butter cookies together, I still get a warm, fuzzy feeling inside. This is a core memory, so to speak.

From the age of 15, she started working full time and I had to take on the role of primary caretaker at home. On school days I would prepare everyone's breakfast and lunch. After school I would cook dinner then, when my siblings were done, I'd wash the dishes. My parents would often come home late and either eat the plate of food that was set aside, or make something for themselves. It was, for me, a necessary responsibility of being born first. My youngest sister was 5, so she couldn't fend for herself. My other sisters were 10 and 12, so could help, but weren't strong enough to lift the heavy pots and pans from the stove5. I cooked a lot of meals, and I eventually learned to enjoy it when I started cooking for people who were not family.

To this day I continue to cook and prepare food the same way as Mum taught me. This morning I made Reiko and the boy some French Toast the same way my mother liked to have it. A recipe that has been passed down at least three generations.

She Taught Me to Observe My Body Language

During one of our "weekends in the kitchen" conversations, Mum told me flat out that she didn't like my body language that day, then went on to list all the things I was doing to send her various signals. The way I slouched showed a lack of interest, the way I crossed my arms showed I was being defensive, the way I sat showed I wanted to leave, and so on. So precise were her criticisms that I thought a lot about them in the weeks, months, and years that followed. As a result, the way I hold my body when speaking to people is still something I pay very close attention to today, and I watch the body language of others to get more clues about how they feel. Doing this has undoubtedly reduced a lot of misunderstandings and made it much easier to identify when someone is being less-than-accurate with their statements.

It's a good thing my mother didn't put up with very much teenage sass. A very good thing.

She Got Me My First Real Gig (as an Artist)

Before computers, I was very much into creative arts. I would spend almost every spare minute up in my room, sitting at my home-made desk6, drawing anime-style characters, two-point perspective cityscapes, views from nation-sized parks, futuristic cars, X-Men, scenes from Star Trek, and just about anything else that could be expressed with Staedtler 3H pencils and a 24-pack of Laurentien pencil crayons. One day my mother came home from work and asked if I'd like to earn a little money by painting a map of Canada on a wall at her office. I jumped at the chance and, for the next two weeks, I would spend a number of hours every day at her work first drawing the provinces and time zones on the wall, marking the major cities, and outlining the major northern islands, then later painting them different shades of teal7. When everything was said and done, I was paid $800 for my efforts and I was incredibly happy8.

She Expected Better From Me

Raising kids is not at all easy and what works with one child will not necessarily work with another. My mother has known me longer than I've known myself, and she has always been very aware that I am self-driven and determined to accomplish something I've set my mind to. She also knows that I've operated within a very defined, yet ever evolving, set of ethics and morals since before I could even express the ideas coherently9. My sisters are not at all like me in this regard, nor are either of my brothers. Perhaps it's because of this that my Mum would pull me aside when I was being stupid and tell me point blank that I was wrong. She'd say why something needed to be corrected and not put up with repeat offences. She would occasionally do this with my siblings, but rarely with the same intensity. Later on, after she left my step-father, she explained why she was more strict with me than anyone else. While it's most certainly unfair to my siblings, I can look back and appreciate the additional scolding.

She Always Answered the Phone

After finishing my post secondary education, I worked at an appliance repair company in town. Every day people would call to complain about their broken washing machines, dishwashers, microwaves, air conditioners, and just about anything else that might have been classified as an appliance in the late 90s. I very quickly learned to hate the sound of a ringing telephone and, to this day, I will generally not answer a call if it is not from a very select group of people or otherwise planned in advance via a text-based means of communication. That said, when someone wants to talk, regardless of how busy I might be at that moment, I am always available. Some things are more important than whatever priorities or deadlines we might be tackling. Of the many things my mother taught me, this might be the most important.

There's no denying that I'm not very good at maintaining relationships. I can often go weeks, months, or years without talking to a person, then send an email (or hand-written letter) as though we had just spoken the weekend before. This happens without me even realizing the passage of time10, which has resulted in some lost friendships and misunderstandings with family. That said, I've never — to the best of my knowledge — pushed a person away who needed to chat. We are all on this world so briefly that it's important to make time when it seems that none exists. Very rarely is the thing we're working on right now a matter of life and death. The tasks can wait for a bit while we "answer the phone".

  1. Living on the other side of the planet from the nearest family member means there are a lot of people that I haven't seen in well over a decade. While I've never been subject to missing people, there are times I think about bringing the whole family to Canada for a month just to see what's going on and how people have grown.

  2. My father started going bald in his late 20s. By the time he was my age, half his head was bare and he never went anywhere without a hat on. While my hair has certainly thinned over the years, there is no sign of balding just yet.

  3. My two "full" sisters lived with my mother. For five years it was just my father and I living together in a 2-bedroom apartment.

  4. How my parents managed to afford this lifestyle on a single income where 40% was dedicated to the mortgage is beyond me. That said, we did eat a lot of Kraft Dinner when guests were not expected. In the 90s a box of this pseudo-pasta meal could be had for as little as 29¢. My mother would often stock up on "KD" — as it was called — by the case when the sale price dipped below 35¢ per box. Suffice it to say that after moving into my own apartment, I vowed to never eat the stuff ever again. So far so good, and given that a box of Kraft Dinner is about $3.25 USD here in Japan, there's absolutely no chance of me breaking this vow.

  5. Also, I was 15. If there are no adults at the house and someone injures themselves, an ambulance would have to drive 30 minutes to the house, then 45 minutes to the nearest hospital. A 15 year old cannot legally drive in Ontario, though exceptions can be made in dire circumstances. My parents would have still killed me had I taken a vehicle to drive an injured sibling to a hospital, no matter how well-intentioned the act would have been.

  6. Funny fact about that desk; I made it. Originally it was a 4'x8' sheet of particle board for a train set but, due to a lack of funds when you're 14, I decided to turn it into a really big desk. I cut the board into 4'x6' and 2'x4' pieces, then used the large piece as the desk, and the smaller piece as a shelf underneath. The legs were from a dismantled bunk bed. A lot of creativity was explored at that desk, and it's where I put the first computer I received, an IBM 8088.

  7. This was the one stipulation. Every province and territory had to be in the company colours, which were teal and dark teal. I did manage to suggest having four shades and one hue of teal so that there would be enough contrast on the wall that people wouldn't be overwhelmed with a two-storey, monochromatic map of the country.

  8. My parents thought I was being ripped off given the amount of effort that was put into the artwork, but I was too young and foolish to see it that way. $800 was a lot of money back then, and it's still more than I get paid for a lot of the freelance jobs I take on.

  9. One might argue that I still can't express some of my ethical or moral stances coherently.

  10. This is, in my mind, absolutely bizarre given how preoccupied I am with the whole concept of time and mortality. Is everyone a walking and talking self-contradiction, or is it just me?


A number of people have told me that I'll get to relive my youth through my son, seeing the world from his perspective and empathizing with his perspectives. This may happen with some "timeless items" such as learning to ride a bike1, playing catch2, or rushing to the emergency ward of a hospital3, but the world has changed quite a bit in the 40-odd years since I was his age. That said, one old memory that came back to me with incredible clarity this past weekend was evoked when the boy went down for a nap while we visited his grandparents in Gifu.

This is likely a common memory for most people. My parents would visit family, and I'd have to take a nap or otherwise go to sleep in an unfamiliar place surrounded by unfamiliar smells and hearing unfamiliar voices. Even for places I'd been to dozens or hundreds of times, the place would feel "weird" to sleep at. Most of the time I'd have to make due with a sofa in an unused room. Occasionally I'd be asked to sleep in someone else's bed, which I never did because it felt very wrong. Even now I would choose to sleep on a hardwood floor rather than rest in a bed that belongs to someone else. In the distance I'd hear my parents loudly talking and laughing, all the while insisting everyone under the age of 10 "go to sleep".

The boy is still too young to make strong memories4, but I do wonder if he felt it odd to sleep in a different room surrounded by different smells and different voices.

  1. which I recall learning alone on a gravel driveway in the rain

  2. the strongest memory of which involves my father and I walking over to the elementary school near our apartment, where we'd throw the ball for what seemed like hours on end

  3. Hope this doesn't happen …

  4. I think …