Witten's Christmas Letter for 2006

Tauwhare Road
New Zealand
January 3, 2006
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We thought 2006 had been pretty quiet until we looked back at the calendar! Pam decided that after so much traveling in 2005 she would spend the entire year in New Zealand, which she did -- if you count Australia as the West Island, our third island. Ian had interesting solo international adventures: Hawai'i, Moscow, India -- all work of course. We entertained visitors, played music (Pam took up the cello), took a mini break in the South Island (here they call it the Mainland), Ian wrote a book, and what with one thing and another we kept ourselves occupied and out of serious mischief. Other people's Christmas letters are full of the g and r words, grandchildren and retirement plans (have we all reached that age already?) but we have neither. We did receive one complaint about last year's letter: a professorial friend counseled us to write an abstract, divide the text into sections and subsections, include a table of contents and an index ... but no, we're ignoring that. So please stop right now if you can't take any more: you've just read all the highlights!

The kids thrive. Anna and Dan are still in Australia: they moved to another little town close to Sydney on account of Anna's promotion last year. She often spends a night or two away from home, and likes staying in hotels -- particularly having meals served to the table and cleared up for her. She also enjoys a bit of solitude. Dan is in the chemical waste business (now there's a growing field!) and founded his own company this year. He has a couple of major long-term contracts and it was one of those contractors who suggested that he start up on his own and promised him plenty of work. Pam visited Anna and Dan in June, while Ian was slogging it out in Hawai'i. They live in a rented house on six acres, along with a goat and a cat. Pam was surprised how cold and frosty it was in winter: we think of Australia as a fiery desert island. They made yards of thermal-lined curtains. Dan did sterling duty in the kitchen and provided evening entertainment strumming his guitar while everyone huddled around the fire. The highlight of (and reason for) the trip was buying Anna's wedding dress. Mother and daughter dissolved into giggles at some of the possibilities, deciding that she could be married in a duvet, a feather duster, or a meringue. Which (if any) was chosen is a closely-guarded state secret.

Dan and Anna spent three weeks in New Zealand during August and September, staying with us for a few days. Unfortunately Dan's grandmother had just died; they made it to the funeral which was not far away. Then the four of us squeezed into our little car and drove to Auckland for a day's sailing. We stayed overnight with Pam's mum and set off at the crack of dawn, but not too early for Ian to burnish his halo by cooking a pancake breakfast, to Peggy's utter astonishment ("and they're really good too!"). Pam's dad apparently never cooked and Peggy is impressed by Ian's meagre kitchen skills. We were off to stay with Dan's parents in Whangarei for some intensive wedding planning for March 17, 2007. We visited the nuptial beach at Oakura Bay an hour away (just south of the Bay of Islands) and inspected the Pohutukawa tree that will provide shade for the ceremony. We checked out the campsite and cottages for guests to stay. We hired a marquee, tables and chairs, cutlery and crockery; found a celebrant; arranged flowers; decided on a photographer; ordered a cake; printed and addressed the invitations. Thanks to Anna and Dan's calm, organized, and decisive nature we got everything done in a couple of days -- it's amazing what you can accomplish when you have to! Then Pam and Ian drove back while Anna and Dan flew to the South Island for a spot of snowboarding, followed by a visit to friends in Christchurch.

Nikki still loves the house she bought in Hamilton, and rents rooms out to a few tenants, including her boyfriend (!). Delightfully, we see a lot of her. She often comes round for some country quiet to escape the noise and bustle of the shared house, to spoil the cat (it's Nikki's cat, though we look after it), and for nice meals with vegetables -- in her place they take turns to cook and the guys regard green vegetables as effeminate and entirely unnecessary. She and John house-sit for us when we disappear on sailing weekends. She's taken a fancy to vodka martinis, which gives Ian an excellent excuse to shake (not stir) a couple. Nikki and Ian take hour-long exercise swims semi-regularly; Pam sometimes comes along too. It's a good deal: Ian needs the motivation and Nikki needs a ride to the pool.

In May, father and daughter spent some time together at Lake Waikaremoana in Urewera National Park. You drive to Rotorua, which is not far, and continue about the same distance again. But it takes hours, for the tar seal becomes gravel and peters out into a rough track through territory that feels almost uncharted. Even the shacks and wrecked cars disappear. The road winds and winds, getting worse and worse, through impenetrable forest, with nary a vehicle, dwelling, person, animal or even bird in sight, until finally you stumble upon a charming oasis: the lake (which is vast) and motorcamp (which feels like the very height of civilization, so deprived are you of any signs of society). The guidebook advises circumperambulating the lake, a journey of several days through wilderness, but it was late in the season -- and cold! -- so we rented a tiny cabin and took energetic day walks instead. We hiked up to a lake, with an island that contains another lake. The forest is thick and dense, with tangled exotic vegetation. Some trees sustain an entire ecosystem, with creepers and huge plant growths dangling from branches (they're heavy; they call them "widowmakers"), and other plants growing on the boughs -- even other varieties of tree that have rooted far above the ground in the crook where a branch meets the trunk. We walked along the lake and then hiked back a circuitous route that took us past five further lakes and a swamp. In the evenings we huddled around the little electric fire, opened a bottle of wine, and read companionably. Aren't kids great? When we took the plunge and started a family all those years ago we never thought that one of the very nicest parts is having your grownup kids as best friends later in life.

Nikki's highlight of the year was taking John to her best friend's wedding in Vancouver. John has spent all his life in New Zealand and Nikki loved showing him the world. We'll never forget his tongue-in-cheek remark on their return that Vancouver -- one of the world's most exotic and vibrant cities, boasting beaches, skyscrapers, snowy mountains, astonishing city parks, and a diverse multi-cultural population -- is "just like Hamilton, only less convenient!" Nikki will never forget that of all the wonderful and exciting things they did together, for John the highlight was -- squirrels! It had never occurred to us that there are none in New Zealand, and it turns out that seeing a commonplace city squirrel for the first time is an amazing experience. John chased them, and took innumerable photos, which Nikki says his friends squeal with excitement over when they come round. It's not just John, it's Kiwis: squirrel virgins all. John's other big memories include buffalo wings and the humungous variety of salad dressings. Nikki, the bridesmaid, remembers her friend's ear-to-ear grin at the dream wedding, and the stagette party in a cabin at Coultis Lake in the mountains, swimming in the lake in the dark, drinking sangria, and smoking pot (not Nikki of course). Nikki and John had a great few days in Hawai'i en route. They stayed in Honolulu and were driven all round the island of Oahu by an acquaintance who had also shown Ian around just a couple of months before.

Pam continues to teach music at a primary school one day a week. It's not part of the regular school music programme but an extra-curricular activity that parents sign their kids up for (and pay extra). It's an ideal situation: the school provides a room and takes care of all the administration; Pam focuses on teaching music. Numbers have grown year by year until now about a third of the school participate, including some kids in their final year who Pam has been teaching since the outset. She organized two concerts, one in the middle and the other at the end of the school year, and the whole school was involved. Her kids play recorders, marimbas, and drums, another teacher had everyone singing, and some students played solos on instruments they are learning privately. These musical activities are much appreciated by kids and parents alike. She has been persuaded to teach again next year -- but that will be the last.

There are many other musical activities. Pam's recorder group, half a dozen strong, continues to meet every week, and she attends the Hamilton recorder society every month -- she's past president, peacekeeper and occasional kingmaker. She was overjoyed to meet an ex-student who she hadn't seen for ages but is now teaching the very same class at Saturday morning music school that Pam gave up years ago when the regular 8 AM commitment became too tiresome. Isn't it great to see the baton passed to your proteges? She also drops in on occasional meetings of the Auckland recorder society. But the big news is that on 1 February she had her very first cello lesson! -- and her first hands-on encounter with the famed Suzuki method of music teaching. She has always yearned to play cello because of the raw physicality of wrapping yourself around a musical instrument and coaxing beautiful music from it. She continues to love the experience and is making great strides: sometimes even Twinkle twinkle little star sounds nice.

In September Pam went to Wellington for the New Zealand Recorder Festival week. She enjoys these occasions, meeting old friends and making new ones. It's hard work making music from morning to night, in various group settings, some run by internationally-renowned musicians. This year she played crumhorn in a raucous Renaissance band. Meanwhile, back home, good use was made of her season ticket when Nikki accompanied Ian to an electrifying New Zealand Symphony Orchestra performance that culminated in Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, a graphic and approachable piece for Nikki, not much of a classical music buff, who greatly enjoyed the experience.

Ian also continues his music. He played in two Waikato Symphony Orchestra concerts. Juggling a traveling academic lifestyle with rehearsals and concerts is tough, but an ideal solution has evolved: Ian shares the second clarinet chair with Paul, a good friend (and wonderful player) who knows the repertoire backwards and is content to join the orchestra on an occasional basis. The informal clarinet "quartet" has thrived this year, with three to five players meeting at our house pretty well every week -- by now we have an extensive musical library for all configurations. Some players join us each week for dinner, cooking being shared between Pam and Sarah -- a gifted cook, musician, and writer who lives in Auckland but works at Waikato University during the week. Gradually we seem to be changing from a musical group that eats first to a dinner club that plays afterwards! Our weekly meals are convivial, often hilarious, drawn-out affairs, with wine, and their belly-busting nature seriously detracts from our ability to play clarinets. Breath control is always tougher on a full stomach, and wine compromises dexterity and sight-reading.

The Hector Medal for "outstanding contributions to mathematical and information sciences" that Ian won last year was awarded by the President of the Royal Society in a small ceremony in April. While researching his acceptance speech Ian discovered a curious Canadian connection. The Kicking Horse Pass, just across the Great Divide that separates Alberta from BC, is named (not surprisingly) after an incident in which a horse kicked a man, concussing him so badly that his companions took him for dead -- it was only as he lay beside the freshly-dug grave that he was able to open an eye to signal that he did not wish to be buried yet. That man was (surprise!) James Hector, a Scot who accompanied Palliser's expedition to explore the Rocky Mountains. He later emigrated to New Zealand and became one of our most renowned scientists. He also named Hector's Dolphin, a species we occasionally see from Beulah. The Medal itself is huge and useless -- what do you do with a 3-inch gong that does not even have provision for a chain to hang by? On the front is Sir James himself, and the back depicts a crouching Maori observing a pair of now-extinct native birds (huia).

While on the subject of work, this year Ian finished the book Web Dragons: Inside the myths of search engine technology that he began during our visit to Siena last year with two Italian co-authors. (He likes to write. You guessed?) Published in November (just in time for the Christmas market -- and we know for a fact that at least one copy has been given as a Christmas present, and not within our family and not to a computer scientist), it's a populist book about how search engines are transforming the way we work, and changing -- not for the better -- how information and knowledge develop within our society. It's completely non-technical: take a look at webdragons.net!

In February, Ian was invited to talk at an international conference in Nelson, a small seaside town in the South Island. He jumped at the chance -- there are few international conferences at exotic locations so close to home -- and we took the opportunity to have a little holiday. Nelson itself is beautiful. Pam attended a recorder workshop there some years ago and has wanted to show Ian round ever since. We strolled the streets, saw the goldsmith where the Great Ring of Sauron was forged (for the movie), ate memorable fishy feasts, and visited wineries. For years Nelson hosted the unique Wearable Art fashion festival, and in the World of Wearable Art Museum we found incredible clothes -- the Bizarre Bra collection was a particular favorite of Ian's. Twirling mannequins waft past on a rotating circular stage, with rock-show effects of piercing colored lights and pulsing music, decked out in the most outlandish costumes: stunning, intriguing, whimsical, occasionally grotesque works of art, many employing unconventional everyday items such as bicycle tubes, paperclips and recycled plastic bottles to astonishing creative effect.

Leaving Nelson we traveled northwest to the tip of the South Island. For old times' sake we hiked part of the Tasman Track to the beach where in January 1986 we and our girls camped with two friends from Calgary and their 6-week old daughter. From the Christmas 1986 letter, we fondly remember

... pulling in to a campsite at Golden Bay (north-west tip of South Island), setting up the tent, only to look round and notice Blob and Jo's tent next door -- surprise, surprise! Four adults, two kids, one baby, hiking a couple of miles down the beach to camp on the sand, by a stream, deserted, for a few days. Introducing nude sunbathing to an astounded New Zealand. School of 30 killer whales playing close offshore. More deserted beaches with weird caves of eroded rock, lonely miles of sand dunes, up near Farewell Spit.

This year baby Charlotte turned 21, our kids are even older, and because of the ozone hole (and, let's admit it, for other reasons too) we no longer sunbathe naked. But otherwise our little trip down memory lane was just the same, except that instead of killer whales we disturbed a huge (2-metre) stingray that shot between us as we swam. Golden Bay really is amazing: one long lonely pristine golden beach after another. As it happens, Jo and her then-unborn now-19-year-old son are visiting us right now, over Christmas, as we write this letter.

A highlight of the year was a visit from very old ... er ... long-time Alberta friends. In 1969 (nearly four decades ago!) Marie and Pam worked as computer operators in Calgary University Data Centre, and with them we have shared countless unforgettable experiences, from castrating bullocks to sexing ducks, from trips on the honey wagon (Jim's septic tank service) to whisky-soaked wild-west barn-dance shindigs. Marie even came to see us way back when in Wivenhoe, tiptoeing nervously through 16-century Suffolk villages, terrified that the ancient, rickety buildings might choose that moment to fall -- on her -- and showing staid English pubs how Alberta girls party. These two have often shared their extraordinary country lifestyle with us and we were eager to give them a taste of ours. Jim, prairie born and bred, overcame his dread of flying to come halfway round the world, and while here we worked hard on his aversion to water (beer has never been a problem). With them we drank champagne in a private frond-fringed sandy-bottomed hot pool. We strolled the beaches at Raglan on the west coast and Mount Manganui on the east. We swam in the surf (Jim wisely decided that someone had to guard the clothes). We went sailing, a terrified Jim wincing as the boat heeled, ever so slightly, and dissolving in panic at every tack. We even spent a night aboard. As Jim recorded in the logbook, "enjoyed the company immensely. Not so sure about the experience." For a farewell gift we ordered matching t-shirts: Marie's inscribed I sailed Beulah and Jim's I survived Beulah. All in all we had a great time showing these country Albertans bits of our life.

We entertained many other visitors. On the ferry back from Nelson Ian was surprised by a tall rangy woman bounding up and calling his name in a loud Northern Irish accent. Fortunately she introduced herself and her husband: two of his sister's sailing friends and long-time cruising companions had recognized us. Later they came to stay for a long weekend, and we took them out on the Hauraki Gulf (despite stormy weather) to round off their NZ holiday. Tim and Judith flew up from the South Island, all too briefly -- but not too briefly for Ian and Judith to enjoy a quick clarinet duet, as they always do. Wendy came from Lethbridge to work in Ian's lab for a month. And Pam's brother Graham from Auckland visited several times with his partner Julie, as did Pam's mum.

Tragically, in mid-year our faithful dog Tanzi died. After 14 years together even Ian had developed some affection for her. She slowed down over the last couple of years to the point where even short walks round the garden became a huge effort, and fortunately the end, when it came, was quick, decisive, and painless (at the vet's). She's buried down the garden beside her lifelong friend and companion, our cat Cleo. We had a temporary replacement for a few months in Monty, a friend's large, energetic, boisterous dog who we looked after during her sabbatical. Monty is crazy and lovable. His favorite toy is a now-far-from-white teddy bear who in his sleep he cradles protectively with his paw -- and every visitor is greeted enthusiastically by Monty and Teddy and forced to extract the latter from the former's mouth and play with both.

In other domestic news, we became stalwarts of the local community by signing up as Friends of the Waikato Museum, which entitles us to Saturday morning coffee, biscuits, and introductory lecture at the opening of each new exhibit. Pam again failed to win coveted membership of the Matangi Garden Club despite being on the waiting list for several years, but she did get invited to some of their meetings: we live in hope for 2007. Pam also attended a multi-day de-toxing juice fast at Aio Wera, a health and spiritual centre tucked away in the bush north of Auckland (her brother Graham is on the Board of Directors). Five days on nothing but fruit and vegetable juice, along with an occasional sip of water, though the upside was the spa, sauna, and on-site masseuse. Finally, this was the year of the dishwasher disaster, but you don't want to hear about that.

Having got thus far with hardly a mention of sailing, now is the time to rectify this disgraceful omission. But let's be quick. We saw the New Year in on Beulah in our accustomed anchorage, having just delivered Ian's niece Claire and Paddy to the airport at the end of their NZ honeymoon. We sipped champagne and watched fireworks on Onetangi Beach increase in intensity from 9 PM, and were actually still awake when the display climaxed at midnight and the night sky over Auckland lit up to the sound of boat hooters. The year opened with brisk breezes: we made it partway home on Jan 1 but had to shelter and weigh anchor at 6 AM the next day to get back to safety before the forecast gale struck.

Brother Brian arrived in late January for the annual Big Sailing Trip, and came straight from the airport to Beulah to recover from jetlag afloat. We spent 12 nights on board (equivalent to a case of wine, plus plenty of other fluids). The weather was indifferent, with strong winds, and because there was no lazing about in the sunshine we traveled a long way despite having to take refuge in a sheltered anchorage for an entire day, experiencing 50-60 knot gusts that had us yawing and heeling violently at anchor. The tenor of the trip is summed up in this brief but evocative log entry:

7:15 PM Day 3 DISASTER STRIKES! Ian's rum and lime, sitting on the deck, is BLOWN OVER by fearsome gust. Manages to catch glass. And then glass with Brian's toothbrush capsized, toothbrush went over the side!

Resolutely continuing despite this debilitating gear loss, we made it to the Bay of Islands in fresh southerlies. We got this far a couple of years ago, but this year we continued north, powering past the beautiful Cavalli islands in a brisk breeze, patchy drizzle and heavy seas, finally anchoring in Northland's remote, stunningly fjord-like, well-sheltered Whangaroa Harbour. Having come so far we were concerned about getting back before the wine ran out, so after buying a toothbrush and a short night's sleep we left early in the morning (6 and 7 AM starts were a feature of this trip) and beat back nervously against strong winds to the Bay of Islands. There we had our only really nice sunny morning, celebrating with a slow start and the usual bacon and pancakes in an idyllic sandy bay. Suddenly a flotel anchored nearby. Swarms of heathens descended in canoes and landing craft. Big fizz-boats appeared. Huge tourist launches zoomed through. Paradise lost.

The wind dropped and we made slow progress. We picked oysters off the rocks in Whangamumu Bay, which is just as lovely as the handbook says. We anchored at Oakura Bay, Anna's wedding venue. We even managed to stop overnight at an island in the remote Hen and Chickens group that we had visited on a previous trip. As mentioned in our 2004 Christmas Letter landing is prohibited on these wildlife sanctuaries, but they are worth visiting for the birdsong alone. This year we were awoken by strange sounds in the middle of the night, and came on deck to an unforgettable dolphin display. They trailed streaks of phosphorescence like gilded streamers of sparkling light, and noticing us they came and swam right beside Beulah. Being invited to share their fun was one of the most magical experiences of our lives. Next morning was less magical, though, as we set off early in heavy rain and indifferent winds; the following day we experienced very strong winds (over 25 knots) for the final leg back past a couple of America's Cup yachts practicing for our next victory. It was a great adventure, and despite (or because of) the poor weather we traveled further than we ever dreamed we could.

There were many lesser sailing trips. As usual we spent Easter weekend at the Waiheke Island Jazz Festival with Neil and Karen, and did a little eating and sailing around with them. Ian went off with clarinet player Sarah and her husband for a weekend, and they picked up another clarinetist Murray, with his daughter, from their holiday bach for another little sail around. He also took out a couple of graduate students, catching a fish for lunch and another for them to take home.

Ian had some interesting international travels. First he gave a course in Honolulu, spending several days there including a trip around Oahu guided by the same man who took Nikki and John around a few months later. It's a fascinating island, with densely vegetated and apparently vertical cliffs on the west side and an amazing variety of flowers and trees. The hotel was right on Waikiki beach: he was served alfresco meals to the sound of surf and took daily swims after work. From there to an undistinguished conference in North Carolina, and on to Belfast for a great week with his mum and sister. He spent much time on the water, racing and sailing in Pippa's kids' many boats, walked, and ate and drank inordinately well.

The next jaunt was to a conference in Suzdal, a small well-preserved town near Moscow, with forty old and impressive churches and monasteries serving a population of just a few hundred. It was Ian's first time in Russia, and although Suzdal was OK he did not like Moscow at all. He was surprised that although many tourists (and quite a few chilly wedding parties) strolled around Red Square and the Kremlin, he never heard any English or other European language. The Russian people seemed dour, unfriendly, and unhelpful: they never smile or laugh, except for a few apparently well-heeled young people. They reminded him of our sheep. Lambs gambol happily until they reach a point one day when they look around and say "I'm a sheep!", after which it's head down, munch munch, no fun for the rest of their lives. And rude! -- Russians are incredibly boorish, pushing and shoving in queues. However, he did have some interesting musical experiences, improvising to Ukrainian folk tunes at the conference dinner. Following Russia he went to Swansea for a brief visit and Sheffield for a nice day with brother Brian.

Finally, three weeks in India: Kozhikode, formerly Calicut, in Kerala; Delhi; and Kolkata (formerly Calcutta). What a great and intense experience -- and how utterly different from Russia. I want to write a lot about it, but alas! no space.

Another busy year. We've failed our New Year's resolution to do less and write shorter Christmas letters. But it's been fun, and fun writing. We just learned from Jo, who teaches English, that to write is to taste life twice (according to Anais Nin, who should know). It's a good taste. Congratulations for getting all the way through to the end, and may peace be with you!

Pam and Ian