Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Drawing Doors

As life progresses, we might feel like swirling down a funnel with less-and-less room to move about, fewer-and-fewer choices left, freedom lost forever: hard on free spirited souls. Some of the narrowing tumble comes from bodies no longer willing, some from choices previously made, some from minds set in their habits. Yet, the progression of life continues to have points of inflection. Divide by zero. Trajectory undefined. Our rigid, fearful wills usually skip over these discontinuities and continue on more-or-less as before, but if we pay attention we have a chance, at these times, to take a completely different path. Even better, with some effort and a little luck we can create these chances for ourselves by drawing doors.

Imagine sitting in a room. A nice room. Life’s good. Excellent companionship. Great food (especially the free lunches at Google) and drink. No worries. You notice a marker on the table and begin to wonder. Not knowing exactly what the door will look like, you start to draw one upon the wall, improvising. You have no idea how to make it real. No idea what’s on the other side. No idea if you will walk through. You just want the freedom to choose. A choice. An option in life. You keep at it patiently, adding hinges. One morning, as you are sketching some molding detail, you hear a voice on the other side, “Hey mate, if you’d just put a door knob opposite the hinges maybe we can get this thing open.” Accented English. Not really British. Not quite Australian. Oh bloody hell, it’s a Kiwi! What luck!

This post is our story of drawing a door to take us to New Zealand. I think of our friends Theron and Sarah who spent two years drawing their door to Romania, and then two years living there with the Peace Corp. Perhaps our story is comparatively small potatoes, but it’s the big pumpkin to us, particularly because we’ll be continents away from our children and our love child Alizée. As I did with Theron and Sarah, I take the liberty of using real people and real names in our story. They all read (if they so choose) these posts, so they can bloody well speak up and defend themselves if needed.

When we were out sailing talking with tired circumnavigators, New Zealand always stood out as a special place. By-and-large most would just as soon drop the anchor there for the last time and call it good. Like many people, particularly sailors, we began to have a budding fascination with a land we had never seen.

Kiwis understand boats and understand sailing (sheep too, apparently). A goodly part of Alizée came from New Zealand. In particular, a neat piece of kit (I’m working on my kiwi here. ‘kit’ means ‘gear’.), the XB-8000 from Auckland based Vesper Marine sits behind Alizée’s instrument panel. In a nutshell, and at its most basic, this little blue box sends and receives signals from everyone else’s little blue boxes so we don’t bump into each other out there on the high seas or, more likely, play bumper cars in a foggy harbor. Bump sounds a little too symmetrical. Being run over by a freighter is hardly a symmetrical experience. At any rate, these little blue boxes are great things and save lives. Anyone who knows me knows I root for the little guy. Vesper Marine is the little guy taking on the marine electronics giants and winning because Vesper makes a superior product, plain and simple.

Carl. All right ladies, move away.
He's married with a little boy, Cooper.
Problem was the optional companion app for the XB-8000 ran only on the iPhone. At the time I was working for Google in the Android division. iPhone? Really? I figured I could quickly write an Android app to do what I needed if I just had access to the XB-8000 API. I wrote an email to Vesper with an offer; share the API with me and I’ll give you the Android app when I’m done. Perhaps they didn’t believe me or perhaps they doubted my sincerity. Either way, it was crickets. I did something I do well when so moved; I was annoying. Finally, Jeff passed me over to Carl for babysitting and a non-disclosure followed shortly thereafter. I don’t know (yet, I owe Carl some beer over which I hope he will divulge all history on the other side of the door) whether Carl was pumped or annoyed at having yet another project dumped on his already full plate. I, however, was definitely pumped because I could telnet and http to this thing over Wifi. Not only that, I could connect to their test unit and watch the traffic in Auckland harbor while freezing my cheeks off in Boulder. I mean how cool (cold) is that? My inner geek slipped its leash and I felt ten years younger. I mean ‘HELO’! (Everyone that gets that one can have a free beer next time I am in their presence. In a bar. After noon. Jim H., I know you know and I already owe you one, so back off.)

As these things tend to do, the simple project ballooned completely out of proportion to the original intent and the little Android app became a real app, in many ways exceeding the capabilities of the Vesper iPhone app. Vesper sent me hardware. I sent Carl a sweet Nexus phone to wean him off that evil iPhone. Mostly I worked Sunday nights, Vesper time. Cath grumbled, "When are you coming to bed?" In addition to my day job at Google, I was building Alizée, so moonlight coding hours were hard to come by. That was OK though because I wasn’t getting paid for it anyway, though I did received some nice NZ wine and single malt at Christmas. Still, this was getting a wee too close to real.

During a catchup hangout with Carl, I said, offhandedly, “Hey Carl. You should hire me. Like in New Zealand.” I really do need to get more cognition in prior to vocalization. At that time I knew, and Google knew, I wouldn’t be coming back after our summer with Alizée. NZ was just a passing thought. Not really sure where it came from. “Yeah, alright mate.” Typical Carl understatement. Really? Hmmm. Some things, given nudge, develop a momentum all their own from forces yet undiscovered. I started looking at immigration information. Wow, too old to ever be a citizen, but one year left for permanent residency. Last chance. Now or never. Time to start drawing doors post haste.

Of course, I wasn’t alone here. I told Cath these going ons, but not with a great deal of intent because there wasn’t a great deal of intent at the time, largely because it was impossible to imagine that something like this could actually come to pass. I was just innocently (really) sketching doors on a wall without knowing where one might lead. I couldn’t imagine one might turn into a real door. Still, I kept at it and started to fill in form, after form, after form and my browsing history became dominated by all things ‘’.

The French may have invented bureaucracy, but NZ immigration perfected it. Somewhere along the line I learned to handle bureaucracy. It’s all about patience, persistence, and staying emotionally detached. Don’t get mad. Focus on what you need to achieve and just do it, whether or not it makes any sense at all. For NZ you must apply to be invited to apply for residency. The first application (for an invitation to apply) is point based. You get points for things like advanced degrees and youth. At my age, I got 0 points in the youth column. Cath got 1. Still, we’re well educated cookies in high demand fields and scored well if you look at just the bottom line. But, you have to wait for the fortnight lottery drawing and then the actual invitation to apply. After months of work, I received a cordial invitation to apply for residency under the skilled migrant category because we’re so, well, so skilled.

You would think we were halfway there, but, truly, not even close. The first part of the second application was amassing mounds of documentation to prove all the assertions we made in the first application for those precious points. This proved tricky. We said we had graduate degrees, but by NZ rules you don’t have a degree if you don’t have the paper thing: a diploma. Kinda like you don’t exist if you don’t have a birth certificate despite the fact that you’re standing right there. Case Western, where we went to grad school, saves trees and doesn’t issue paper diplomas. And then there’s the issue of Cath’s Frenchiness, which tripled her documentation. Take for example, police records, needed to prove ourselves of ‘good character’. (NZ seems sensitive about good character. I think it’s a historical NZ vs. the Aussie penal colony thing. I might be wrong.) We needed records from the FBI and the French equivalent. AND we need a translation of the French.

Definitely of good character.
I did the first translations of birth certificate, police records, ... I thought they were pretty good myself. Rejected. The translations must be on letterhead from an official translator recognized by NZ. Translations are a racket it turns out. Then we had the whopper. NZ is also big on ‘of good health’ as well. They insisted on a full medical, with chest x-rays, all by a NZ approved medical facility. You can imagine the price gouging going on there. I can’t even bear to write the number. This was, however, a turning point in the process. The door became real. “Hey honey, we have back-to-back appointments for chest x-rays tomorrow.” “Ah, what?” “You remember, for the New Zealand thing.” “Oh yeah, OK.” “Wait, what?” It was becoming tangible and unsettling. We avoided talking about whether we would open the door, much less walk through it. I focused on making the door real and let it go at that, too uncomfortable to go further.

Hey, now we're demi-kiwis!
We launched Alizée in June and were in the throws of the Wooden Boat Festival when the news arrived: we had been granted residency in New Zealand. Wahoo! Kiwi on the other side of the door, “Hey guys, when are you coming?” Still, we vowed to stay away from the topic and keep our minds on the summer cruising up to and around Maine. Pondering the future, particularly out loud, was too risky and a betrayal of our time with Alizée. We needed our passports to traverse Canada, but would send them to NZ immigration for the residency stamps when we returned to Colorado in September. Just one more step along the path, scary thoughts held safely at bay.

Back in Colorado, what are we doing? Are we walking through this door or not. Perhaps more than Cath, who had already moved continents once, I find the prospect equally exciting and scary. It’s always a bit of a reentry to come home after months out sailing. So many people (and this is just Boulder), so many cars moving about, such a hurry. This time it is different, or perhaps it only seems different because we needed it to be so, but it feels less like home. The entitled kids, the wealth, the first world politics. Is this Colorado or California? It’s becoming hard to tell the difference. For us, trying to live an increasingly modest existence seems hard to do here. Besides, we owe it to all those who would die for the chance. We take a ‘no fear’ vow and start preparing for the plunge.

This door is real. This door is open. We will walk through it. At least we will once we have our lives down to two suitcases each. Aside from my tools, which aren’t going right away, we don’t own that much and we hope to own even less. Living on a boat will teach you how little you need. Each possession we sell, give away, or otherwise dispossess gains us an increment in freedom, an increment in modesty. The end result is like a cleansing deep breath. It feels good. We feel freer. We don’t know how this journey will turn out. Somehow it doesn’t appear important. We’ve heard both good and bad stories. Don’t ask what we’ll do next summer with Alizée or whether we’ll sail her to NZ. Don’t ask when and how we’ll next see our families. We have no idea. Those questions are matters of future doors not yet drawn upon the wall.


  1. Wow, Bill. Very touching and well written. I'm glad you're stepping through that door. But don't forget to come back through and visit once in a while.

  2. As Alexander Graham Bell observed: "Sometimes we stare so long at a door that is closing that we see too late the one that is open." Glad are slipping through the NZ door in time. Fun times ahead.

  3. I am so excited for you and Catherine! I can't wait to finally catch up in person. This seems like anything but small potatoes as far as I'm concerned. What a great adventure you're about to embark on.

  4. Hey Bill - just catching up on your adventures, sounds like some exciting times ahead for you and your family! I'm glad to hear you were able to get that door open.


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