Witten's Christmas Letter for 1987


2429 Cherokee Drive
Calgary, Alberta
Canada
November, 1987

Dear

Greetings. Here we are again, seated vacantly before an unhelpfully blank screen trying to come up with your annual Christmas day after-dinner entertainment and provide you with an alternative, earthier, perspective on life to the Queen's. It's been a little harder to begin the task this year. First, we have less to say, and what there is is more difficult than simply writing a travelogue. (One subscriber wrote back after our last epistle begging for some information about us and what goes on inside our heads, rather than about foreign climes, exotic beaches, and heathen ways. That's hard!) Second, the weather in Calgary is still almost spring-like. Temperatures well above absolute zero, fields of golden daffodils nodding in the scented breeze -- well maybe we exaggerate a little. But we've had only one snowfall (now melted) and it's rarely dropped below freezing. So although it's that time of year, the weather has not helped to put us in the mood. Third, we're both ridiculously busy and it's hard to find any time at all. And finally, we turned 40 this year and you know what that means (or at least half of you do). Anyway, here goes.

The stunning news this year is that we've increased our family without Pam performing the traditional 9-month rigmarole. And I don't mean goldfish, hampsters, cats, dogs, or boa constrictors. We now have a 6-year-old son Scott. Not bad for a year's work, eh? We had discussed adoption before going on sabbatical, and applied when we came back in early summer 1986. Last year we went through the usual tests. First, a series of visits/interviews by a social worker (question: do you clean and tidy the house to create a good impression? -- rehearse with each other to ensure that you're both singing the same song? -- threaten your kids with instant death if they should misbehave while the social worker's there?) And then a course on "adopting the older child", from which we both graduated summa cum laude , as they say over here (but then so did everyone else). Why did we want to adopt? -- we don't know. It certainly wasn't because we particularly wanted a boy as well as girls. I guess we were expanding our horizons, enriching our life. Things were becoming tedious -- the same old routine of world travelling -- and we sought a new interest. We sure got one.

We met Scott on 5 March 1987, the day after Ian's momentous birthday. We knew much more about him than he did about us, having interviewed his social worker, teacher, headmaster, pediatrician, and perused the thick file that Social Services kept on him. Then we embarked on a programme of extensive visiting; afternoons, meals, evenings, days, sleep-overs, eventually complete weekends. On Wednesday 15 April, just before Easter, Scott came to live with us. And he's been here ever since. I guess we should apologize to most of you for not telling you this before. The truth is, we had planned a "birth announcement" style card, complete with photo; but somehow never got round to it. You know what it's like having kids. We even got copies of a photo made, and one is enclosed. Anna took it on her own camera shortly after Scott arrived. He's changed quite a bit since (grown 4 inches, built an impressive paunch) but it'll give you the basic idea!

Scott comes from a Meti background (French/Indian mix). He was born on 18 May 1981 in a small town in Northern Alberta and called Scott Roberts. Now we have named him Scott Robert Witten to help him preserve his own heritage. Very little is known about his early years. He didn't live with either parent beyond the age of a month or so, and led a somewhat itinerant life with the man who was looking after him. He was taken into foster care at age 2 1/2, and luckily was able to stay in the same foster home for the next 3 1/2 years until he came to us just a month before his sixth birthday. The incredible delay between fostering and adoption is something to do with changes in the adoption system in Alberta at the time. Like many other children, Scott was caught in legislative upheavals that will inevitably leave a permanent mark on him in terms of lost opportunities for early development.

He was very attached to his foster parents, and thought of them as his birth parents. For us, getting to know his foster mother was an education in itself. I think he was their 35th (and last) child over a period of about 25 years. She had had four of her own, and adopted two more (one became a champion Canadian figure skater). The other 29 went through her house, some staying for only a month and others for years (I think Scott held the record). I guess you have to be a certain type of person to do that kind of thing. She ruled the roost with a rod of iron. Although we certainly don't share many of her parenting policies, we have great admiration for her and figure that she was probably forced into the harsher ones for the sake of self-preservation! Apparently Social Services would phone, perhaps at 3AM, saying they were bringing in a baby or a toddler, and in half an hour there it'd be -- maybe for months, maybe for years. She felt Scott had come a long way in her care, but they didn't want to keep him, although it would have made a lot of sense for them to do so, because their own kids are grown up and they are approaching retirement. Looking after a young child -- especially Scott! -- takes a certain amount of energy.

Naturally, he didn't want to leave. In fact, as far as he was concerned the first priority was to make the adoption fail. He was shocked to discover that he had to go, although he'd had a couple of foster brothers who had left the home several months before. So we had some pretty bad, non-cooperative, behaviour for the first several months. Meal-times were the worst. His table manners were appalling -- we won't tell you about them! (Of course, he behaved perfectly well in his foster home. Sanctions were pretty strict there.) After moving in he refused to eat for about 2 months, and became noticeably thinner. In fact we discussed whether kids ever do die through self-imposed starvation. Everyone assured us that it was impossible, but when faced with increasingly protruding ribs (like an Oxfam advert) it does begin to become a bit serious. What would Social Services (not to mention the law) say ...? His foster family had pretty conservative tastes in food -- meat and 2 veg, with nothing exotic like broccoli. They hated eggs ("how anyone can eat those things ...") and even pears ("gritty!"). Although they often ate out in restaurants, we surmise it was usually hamburgers. Scott's first meal with us was French toast, and he developed an instant dislike for anything French. He has since extended this to Chinese and Indian food as well. I suppose it's a form of dietary xenophobia -- "Why can't we have normal food?". Getting him to like spinach pie has been one of our principal achievements.

Let's be honest, his background has endowed Scott with some problems. He finds it hard to make decisions (even trivial ones). We attribute this to his foster upbringing. You just weren't allowed to make decisions (even trivial ones) in that household -- all activities were fully programmed from morning to night. He is somewhat behind linguistically and found it hard at first to relate to our mealtime conversations, word jokes and puns, and the like. (We suspect that he may have been exposed to more French than English in his early days, although he certainly doesn't understand French). However, he has enlarged his vocabulary and increased his expressive power noticeably since coming here. He had missed out on a lot of activities that we take for granted. For example, Nikki's birthday party, which occurred while he was visiting us before he came to live, was the first one he'd ever been to! (His foster mum was embarrassed when that cat came out of the bag!) He had missed out on a lot of food experiences (like he'd never heard of different kinds of cheeses -- cheese to him was yellow or orange, not mozarella, parmesan, etc like it is to Nikki). And he'd never heard of chopsticks -- probably wishes now that he had still never heard of them. We often take a peanut butter sandwich for him when we go to a Chinese restaurant.

He also has some notable plusses. Physically, he's a beautiful child with incredibly large, dark, deep, eyes and lashes that everyone remarks on. (You can never tell from his eyes what he's thinking, though). He is master of the casual encounter, and meets people in the street or supermarket and engages them in conversation at the drop of a hat. He's got an incredible streak of impulsive generosity that I (Ian) have never noticed in us, our children, or either of our families (though Pam disagrees with respect to her family!). He's also very sensitive, and having discovered recently that it is ok for boys to show affection is bravely beginning to bless us with occasional hugs and kisses. Scott is repeating kindergarten at an excellent school. He doesn't attend the one the girls to to, because the bilingual program is very demanding. His teacher is absolutely excellent and although we had the usual qualms about his repeating a year, we were very happy to have her teach him. He didn't get on at his previous school at all well and effectively wasted his first 6 months of kindergarten.

It's interesting to study people's reaction when you tell them you're adopting an older child. Some are blunt ("Sure hope you know what you're doing"). There's nothing worse than coming out with "Oh you lucky child -- I just hope you realize how lucky you are" to a kid when the bottom has just dropped out of his world. Many say something like "I do admire you -- we've often thought of adopting but ..." and then go on to cite 50 good reasons why you're making the most awful mistake (most of which you'd never thought of!). By now we're expert on all the reasons why people don't adopt children. Anyway, these are some mistakes you can make all too easily when talking to adoptive parents.

What next? Oh yes, the weather. We had a fabulous winter last year. Although much of central and eastern North America had terrible storms, it wasn't like that here. The temperature was generally around 0C, although it did shoot up to +17C some time in January. Skies were clear and sunny, and our only real complaint was that much of the time the snow was a bit old and icy for skiing. Anna and Nikki are actually getting quite competent. They took downhill lessons before Christmas, but most of the time we ski cross-country to get away from the crowds. Anna shoots ahead but Nikki's still a little slow. Soon we'll be the ones whining about others going too fast! Pam did try the Olympic ladies cross-country run one day, but didn't make it on to Canada's team.

In late January I (Ian) was actually swimming in an outdoor pool, basking in the sunshine. However honesty compels us to admit that this was in Tucson, southern Arizona (near the Mexican border), while attending a conference. It's desert there, with two-storey cactuses just like the ones in comic strips, scrub and dry river beds, black widow spiders, scorpions, rattlesnakes and other delights ... There was on a trip to "Biosphere II", a project which is constructing a completely self-contained, airtight, 2.5-acre environment in which 8 people will live for 2 years, recycling everything except energy (sunlight) and a few radio waves (they will be in contact with the world outside). They will breed goats and chicken (thus getting milk, cheese, eggs, as well as meat), fish (a new breed of fast-growers custom designed for the purpose), and lots of vegetables, reproduced by tissue culture to accelerate growth in case of unexpected disaster. Several different ecosystems will share the Biosphere, including a tropical jungle, savanna, desert, ocean complete with living coral reef, salt-water and fresh-water marshes. The Biospherians are scheduled to enter for their two-year stay at the end of 1988, but if you're interested in a long spell of isolation, don't bother applying -- they're already overwhelmed with world-weary volunteers. Oh and in case you were wondering -- Biosphere I is the Earth itself. Americans don't tend to underrate their own efforts! While in Tucson you can also visit a MX missile site, the only one in the world open to visitors. However I gave that a miss, even though it was reportedly unloaded.

In February I (still Ian) went to a conference in St Louis, Missouri (you pronounce it "Sayunt", not "St"). With typical Eastern chauvinism -- look at a map -- they call it the mid-West. There's a massive shining steel arch there, right by the banks of the Mississippi, which I saw being built when I hitch-hiked through in those heady young days of 1966. In fact, it was in the St Louis YMCA that I slept for 18 straight hours after a continuous 3 days driving, only to be awaken by the cleaning lady who was most concerned in case I was dead! So this time I rode to the top of the arch in a sort of cable car thing that goes up one leg (of the arch, that is). It was the most claustrophobic experience of my life, perched on an grotty white plastic seat in a tiny, totally enclosed cubicle, with only the grinding of gears and chains as a reminder of the world outside. The arch is the symbol of the city, which calls itself the "gateway to the West". And that's exactly what it's like -- a gateway which everybody passed through long ago, on their way to the golden cornfields of Oklahoma or the golden beaches of California. Until my brief visits in 1966 and 1987, the most exciting thing that happened in St Louis since the Gold Rush was the World Fair of 1904, where the icecream cone was invented. They're still talking about it. Although I was impressed with the Mississippi in 1966, I can now report that it's nowhere near as impressive as the Yangtze! And it struck me that even the great arch resembles nothing more than half of the world-famous McDonalds big M except that instead of being a warm, inviting, yellow it's just hard, glittering steel. They don't call them the St Louis blues for nothing!

In March Pam went to Britain on a lightning trip to celebrate her father's 70th birthday. Although the occasion had been brewing ever since she was born (and for quite some time before), surprisingly little planning went into the trip. We already knew about Scott, and it was the realization that if we went ahead with him, travel would be out of the question for quite some time that finally forced a decision. So if she didn't visit you (and she probably didn't), many apologies. The time was short but enjoyable. The very weekend we're writing this, her brother Graham is swearing his nuptial vows in Wellington, New Zealand (of all places), and unfortunately she can't be there. Leaving Scott would be impossible, and so would taking him!

What next ... oh yes, the weather. Late Spring and early summer were pretty awful. We had lots of rain, despite the well-known fact that Calgary never gets rain. However, the sun turned out to join us on our holiday in late July and early August. We jumped in the car and drove hell for leather westward. We were severely rained out of our first campsite at Illecillewaet (nice name, eh? -- you should try pronouncing or even spelling it) in the Rodgers Pass. In fact we found ourselves up a mountain in a heavy thunderstorm again (flashback to that scary episode in Austria two years before). However, once past that the weather smiled on us. We stopped with friends at Salmon Arm by Shuswap Lake (out with the maps) for a couple of days, putting in a bit of water-skiing and a lot of lazing around. Then we drove a marathon to Long Beach on the west coast of Vancouver Island. We were there at the same time in 1970. In the intervening years the hippies had turned to Yuppies, the Volkswagens to Volvos, the guitars to grizzling kids. (Fortunately we were unchanged.) Now Long Beach is a National Park -- and a very good one too. Unfortunately you have to line up at 5 AM to get a campsite (Pam did and was 24th in line; luckily 26 sites became available). Despite this, it was the most wonderful campsite we've ever been in, uncrowded (no neighbors in sight from our tent), flush toilets, hot running water, lush green vegetation and glistening sandy beaches. We stayed for the maximum permitted period of a week, and the weather was beautiful all the time (which is very unusual -- normally it rains a lot). It really is the nicest place. As we left we bought an enormous salmon steak. Our next campsite had just a fireplace, with no grill; Ian had to cook this delicacy by wrapping it in tinfoil and leaving it in the embers; it turned out just perfect, mouth-watering. We rounded off the holiday with Anna learning to waterski at Shuswap lake on the way back. It was a good time, although being Scott's first trip away from his new home, and our first experience all together in cramped quarters, a lot of social relations had to be sorted out!

We're all heavily involved with music these days. Pam plays recorders regularly, soprano (descant to you Brits), tenor, and even borrowed a large bassy looking thing once that she could only reach in high heels. She belongs to the Calgary Early Byrds, a medieval group of assorted wind and percussion minstrels who don strange clothes to perform their ancient melodic rites. Actually, they're very good, and even earn money for performances! They play at quite a lot of occasions, and with any luck will be on the stage in Calgary's magnificent new concert hall -- which really is wonderful, very large, with fabulous acoustics -- during the Olympic festivities. Pam goes to another recorder group too, which is now so easy for her that she started the alto to keep the challenge alive.

Anna is an absolute whiz on the recorder. She began in school in NZ nearly two years ago, and when we returned to Calgary she started private lessons with Pam's teacher, who was excellent. Unfortunately she retired from teaching kids, and Anna now goes to someone who taught music in a school for gifted children in Holland. Anna seems to be a complete natural and is playing astonishingly well in view of her small experience. Now that she's enjoying the recorder so much, she's started to toy with the piano again too. (She had lessons for a few months a couple of years back but gave up in disgust.) But Nikki is our real pianist. A year ago she began incessantly repeating Yankee Doodle like a broken record. She always had difficulty finding one of the notes, so she placed a toy pig on it and called it the "piggy note". We tried to program her to play different tunes by moving the pig around, but in the end were forced to arrange for her to have proper lessons. She has progressed by leaps and bounds. She adores playing, and rarely passes by the piano without sitting down for a few minutes' practice. As part of her homework she had to find notes corresponding to our car horn (the neighbours thought we were nuts), and currently is playing "happy" and "sad" chords (major and minor). Nikki is also crazy about the musical "Cats", and plays the tape constantly. Scott has had little prior exposure to music, but has been making up for that over the last 8 months! Although he's not much of a participator, when you see the shine in his eyes you just know he's singing in his head. Sometimes he has a go on our old, battered, trumpet.

Ian began jazz clarinet lessons in September 1986. Pam bought him a posh new clarinet last Christmas, and as he practices 1 to 2 hours a day she's regretted it ever since. (Actually, she got earplugs for Christmas and so can't complain.) The goal is to be able to play in keys other than B flat! Since it is necessary to use such arcane things as augmented and diminished chords, he even went so far as to brush up on theory and now knows treble and tenor clefs, perfect and plagal cadences, and other useless exotica. At present, practice sessions include augmented and diminished ninths, locrian and lydian modes, "altered" scales, and so on. He's working on a somewhat modern style of jazz and drives the rest of the family up the wall listening to such things as Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk. As yet he does not play in a group. It's a possibility in the future, but finding time is a real problem.

Here's Anna come to say a few words. "No, erase it" (screams, fights, struggles). "I'm not saying anything ". So much for family participation in the Christmas letter. Now here's Nikki. She's thinking about how scary it'll be going to the hospital for the first time. She will have her adenoids -- but not her tonsils -- taken out tomorrow at the Alberta Childrens' Hospital (a 24-hour visit). What she liked most about this year was our visit to a friend's small-holding at Camrose (near Edmonton) last weekend and playing with their two dogs, Teddy and Duchess. They run a honey-wagon (ie septic tank service) -- "you soon get used to the smell, just like the kids that work in McDonalds". However, we spent our time that weekend sexing 300 ducks, separating them from drakes. Nikki also wants to tell you that she has a new toy kittycat called Siam.

Some brief images from 1987. Ian on his annual long weekend canoeing trip with a friend, plunging through white water, open canoe becoming swamped. Rounding a corner at sickeningly high speed out of control, spying with horror a log just ahead, suspended right across the channel one foot above churning, angry water. They survived -- but only just -- and ended up carrying the canoe and all gear through thick bush to escape that awesome river. Another long weekend, backpacking with Anna (and two other families), and spending a day in the sun on a glacier on top of the world (kids too!), roped up, with ice-axes, hopping nervously over deep crevasses. Ian doffed his shirt off to sunbathe in the snow. Another trip -- a breathtakingly close view of a grizzly sow and two cubs, ambling along, just a couple of miles from the campsite. (Fortunately we had packed up and were in the car, driving away.) Cycling en famille down by the Bow river in Calgary (there are 50 miles of beautiful cycle paths, mostly through parks, in this city). Hunched over terminal, writing Christmas letter ...

We can't close without telling you about the shed. Not just any shed, THE shed. With a lot of help from his friends, Ian built a shed last Christmas, from scratch (wood actually). Shows you how good the weather must have been! It's finished with cedar sides and cedar shingles on the roof. It's very posh and just about killed him. However, now it's done we're thinking about moving in and renting the house, particularly with the Olympics coming up.

When are you all coming to Calgary? Now we have the shed there's plenty of room for guests. It would be great to see you and show you the Rocky mountains, or some of them. No excuses now. Just let us know the flight number.

Lots of love and Christmas greetings. May peace be with you.

Pam, Ian, Anna, Nikki, Scott