Witten's Christmas Letter for 1991
It's not Christmas. It's not even Hallowe'en. We haven't had Thanksgiving, for goodness sake. But we're writing our annual letter now because we have a special reason for wanting this to reach you before you mail us your Christmas card. Also, friends have complained in the past that the letter is so long that we should send it earlier to give them a chance to get it finished before the holiday break is over.
This year has seen two earth-shattering changes in the lives of the Wittens, changes that rise above the humdrum of everyday existence -- the kids' triumphs and tribulations, the concerts, holidays, exotic trips. The first is rather sad, the second tremendously exciting. Prepare yourself.
Scott doesn't live with us anymore: he left at the end of August. This probably comes as something of a shock -- you may have thought that things were at last settling down, and looking over previous Christmas epistles we can see how you might have got that impression. In fact Scott's best periods always seemed to be in the Fall which is when we sit down to write, with a rather dramatic downturn at or just after Christmas that extends over several months.
In early Spring we finally decided that adoption was out of the question because of the probable lifetime dependency that it involved. (We have never actually taken the plunge and adopted Scott; he has been living with us for 4 1/2 years with a view to adoption.) The psychiatrist whom he has been seeing for over a year, and who had started out being very supportive of him (and, we thought, rather dismissive of us and the problems we claimed to have), explained that he would not be able to live an independent adult life and, furthermore, that it would be best if he moved out of the family on reaching puberty because of the disruption he was likely to cause at that time. He strongly recommended against adoption, but hoped that we would be able to keep Scott as a foster child for two or three more years. We discussed this at length, and slowly came to the conclusion that fostering Scott for a little longer was not in our best interests, or the girls'. For one thing, it is not what we originally set out to do -- it would have been taking on something quite different from what we had in mind when we first embarked on adoption. Second, our family is growing older, but despite his physical maturation Scott still remains at a very young age emotionally. Third, there was a great deal of aggravation and conflict in our household, and we felt that this could be attributed largely to Scott's negative influence on our family life.
We were, of course, very concerned about what would happen to Scott should he leave us. After a draining meeting with social services and sundry experts in childcare (including Scott's psychologist) it was decided that the best placement for Scott would be in a "First Choice" foster care home -- a special programme for foster parents of difficult older children. Before making the final decision we spent an afternoon in one such home, and it was the most interesting afternoon we've had in a long while. Both parents had had extensive training in child care and psychology (including monthly refresher courses), and have privileged access to all Alberta Social Services, including weekly visits by social workers, weekly babysitting, regular relief for holidays, and a hot-line direct to Social Services' emergency department. They run a very structured family environment where the children know exactly where they are and are constantly receiving feedback on their performance -- goals for the day (controlling temper, improved sibling relations, ...) and such like.
The family Scott has gone to have two younger kids of their own, and another foster child, Andrew, who is a native Indian. Scott is the oldest, which we think is probably good for him. We observed the family in action and have talked at length to Shelley and Ed, the parents, and we think that they provide an environment for Scott that is more suited to his personality and potential than our lifestyle. It helps greatly to know that he is well-cared for by parents who are actually better equipped than we are for dealing with his immediate problems, and better tied in to Social Services when it comes to making suitable arrangements for him in the future. Scott seems to have adjusted to the change very well, and calls us now and again to tell us about the pizzas he has eaten and the TV shows he has watched -- in fact, we'll be visiting him this afternoon. We intend to remain in touch with him as part of his extended family.
It was very sad to see him to go. The days before he left, as you can imagine, were emotionally devastating. We had a family party on his last evening here and while the four of us were close to tears, Scott was happy as Larry to be the centre of attention and seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the celebration. Once we had finally left him in his new home, we went for a long walk in a park and had a real family conversation, an interesting one where everyone participated at the same level and were uninterrupted by attention-seeking diversions. We realized that this had not happened for 4 1/2 years. In the following days we noticed that the house was a lot calmer, and over a few weeks we saw that Anna and Nikki seemed to have developed a real friendship to replace their previous state of perpetual aggravation with each other. While we still feel very apprehensive about Scott's future and the place he will find for himself in the world, our own situation is much happier and more settled, and we think that he is better off too.
Talking about the future ... the second big piece of news is that we're moving to New Zealand! Ian has accepted a job at the University of Waikato, starting 1 January. It's in a town called Hamilton, which is little way south of Auckland. Hamilton is peculiar in New Zealand because it's not on the sea. However, the west coast is 45 minutes away (surfing), and the east coast only twice as far (swimming and sailing). Tongariro National Park is a couple of hours drive south (skiing), Auckland 1 1/2 hours to the north (culture, shopping, and airport), Rotorua not far to the south-west (sulphurous geysers and mud pools), several forest parks nearby. Hamilton itself is a regional market town in the broad and fertile Waikato valley, the best farmland in New Zealand. The university is right on the west side of town. We know people with 10-acre "hobby farms" who drive 10 minutes to work. We ourselves are thinking of keeping a goat, a few sheep, and perhaps eventually some cattle. But that's all dreaming -- we don't know where we're going to live yet.
Pam and Ian visited New Zealand for two or three weeks in July. We spent a week at Hamilton and another in Auckland. Ian stayed on and went to Christchurch for a few days, and then visited Wellington, so he ended up giving seminars in four New Zealand computer science departments. July is mid-winter, of course, but it was mild. We were a little unlucky with the weather in Hamilton (we were told); it rained quite a bit -- but certainly not constantly, and the rain was interspersed with warm, sunny, spells. Thin sweater and brolly weather. Oranges and grapefruit were just about ripe on the trees; we picked some for breakfast. We saw people surfing on nearby beaches on both east and west coasts (in wetsuits -- but surfers wear wetsuits even in San Diego in the winter). We could have driven south for a day's downhill skiing instead -- (snow) skiing or surfing, there's a choice for you! In Auckland Pam spent afternoons sitting outside in the sun reading and watching the boats sail by. We thought winter in New Zealand was extremely pleasant.
Ian interviewed at Auckland and Waikato and ended up having a choice, with excellent offers from both universities. He was strongly encouraged to apply for a senior position at the University of Victoria on Vancouver Island, where he visited and gave a couple of seminars in early June. However, we spent several days there on our holiday in August and although we really liked the place we decided we'd rather pursue opportunities in New Zealand. Another possibility that came up was a position as Institute Director in Graz, Austria, and we seriously considered applying for that (Ian was assured that not speaking German was no problem!), but again decided that the South Pacific was the place of choice. Auckland is a lovely city and clearly the best place in the world to sail -- better even than Sydney, Australia, and much better than Calgary! However, it is a large city (population one million) and quite spread out. We found a nice part on the "north shore" where Ian could get to work with a 10 minute walk, a 10 minute ferry ride across the harbor, and another 10 minute walk to the university on the other side (many offices in the Computer Science Department there have excellent views of the sea). But we wondered about driving through the traffic to escape from the city at weekends; also nice properties are expensive and we could only have afforded a small house. Hamilton, on the other hand, is much smaller and we felt it would provide a better environment for the girls during their teenage years. We are also really attracted by the possibility of owning some land within striking distance of the university -- something you can't do in many places, and certainly not on a university salary! So please note our new address, from 1 January 1992:
Department of Computer Science
University of Waikato
Private Bag 3105
Hamilton, New Zealand
phone (+64 7) 856-2889, fax (+64 7) 838-4155
electronic mail firstname.lastname@example.org (forwarded), email@example.com.
We leave Calgary on 20 December and are spending Christmas with Ian's relatives in Dargaville, north of Auckland. We had planned to do this anyway, since we had arranged to spend January-April on sabbatical in Christchurch, New Zealand. Very reluctantly, we've had to cancel the plans for Christchurch -- but not the plans for Christmas! We are presently in the throes of selling our house and getting quotations for shipping all our worldly goods to New Zealand. It's exciting (and, yes, daunting)!
Why are we moving? Our news evokes envy from personal friends and horror from Ian's professional ones. Ian feels that work has occupied too much of his time over the last several years -- it has been good to establish himself as a senior academic and a leading researcher on the national scene, but not so good as a permanent state of affairs. He has tried to work less in the last 12 months, but failed miserably. It may be that a sabbatical leave followed by a return to Calgary would help, but there's no opportunity to try this out -- if we're going to move, then given Anna's present stage in her education we have to do it now. Ian feels that although he has conquered a lot of challenges here at Calgary, to stay on would, while certainly the easy life, amount to "more of the same." Lots of things seem to argue against a move to New Zealand -- it's very comfortable here -- but we feel compelled to resist these strong conservative influences in favour of new opportunities for growth. Of course, the main challenge there will be to try to lead a more balanced life! -- there is a danger that Ian is trying to run away from himself.
Well, what has 1991 brought us? Let's start with the end of 1990. The traditional Department pantomime was the Wizard of OS (i.e. operating system, for you computer people), which followed (very loosely) the famous Judy Garland movie. Anna starred as one of the two munchkins who greet Dorothy when she lands in OS. Ian played Professor Tin, the tyrant professor -- a rôle he keeps on getting, for some reason -- followed by the Tin Man. We hosted an enormous post-panto party (70 people in our house), though our memories are a bit of a blur. Nikki and Ian's traditional pre-Christmas cross-country ski trip was, as usual, gorgeous. The regular Christmas morning bubbly-and-orange-juice event proceeded as planned, and we all trooped off down the road for a huge Christmas dinner for the usual crowd of Departmental ex- patriates and their rapidly growing families. How things will be changing for us in the future! -- picnic with beer on the beach, we suppose. We did less skiing during the Christmas break than we had hoped because the weather was very cold indeed, too cold for comfort. We did take a brief trip on the Olympic cross-country course at Canmore; Nikki complained endlessly of cold feet and received little sympathy until we got back and took her boots off to find her feet sore and swollen -- an unusual manifestation of frostbite but one that made her parents feel extremely guilty and heartless!
Some friends (Saul and Judy) lent us their beautiful house in Canmore while they were on holiday. We spent a couple of weekends there, looking up to the Three Sisters peaks from our places at table, strolling along the bank of the Bow river after dinner. Pam had her usual Solo Spring Sojourn there in splendid isolation, going on long, brisk walks, tracking down an Osprey's nest, sipping cappucino in the mornings. She invited some of her musical friends up for a day and the mountains rang with early music, viols and crumhorns, Telemann and Corelli. She came home with a moose! He now occupies pride of place in our living-room, and if you are curious you will be able to get acquainted with Basil next time you visit Hamilton NZ.
Anna exercised her rapidly-growing independence by flying a couple of thousand miles to Toronto and back by herself to visit Pippa Sheen and her family for three weeks. She joined them for their annual holiday at the Sheen's famous cottage near Kingston -- the one we drove out to last year, on an island on a lake on the Rideau canal system that goes from Ottawa down to Kingston, bypassing the St Lawrence river. She had a great time. Marika, Pippa's daughter, is about the same age and they spent their days swimming, canoeing, and just hanging out together. The original plan was for Marika to visit us in Calgary but that didn't pan out. We heard good things about Anna's behaviour and companionship that made us proud of her.
Nikki had some time by herself too, when Pam and Ian visited New Zealand. She spent one week with the Cleary family nearby, and another with Tammy Lee, a single girl in her late twenties who lives in perpetual childhood. Tammy was just delighted with Nikki's company and spoiled her rotten! She took her to restaurants galore and out for doughnuts and huge icecreams; they visited art galleries and folk festivals and went swimming in the hot pool at Banff. Nikki achieved the height of decadence by breakfasting one morning on after-eights and ginger ale ("Well she asked me what I wanted, so I told her, and she said ‘sure'!").
Ian had a trip to Graz, Austria, to go to a conference and attend a birthday party. Actually, it was the other way round: the conference was organized by Hermann Maurer around his 50th birthday party. It provided an excellent reason to go, and in fact it turned out to be a very good conference and a really memorable party. Several people from Calgary were there, and other old and new friends from various places around the world. I stayed in a guest-house on the outskirts of Graz, and was woken in the mornings by the sound of bells from cattle grazing nearby. I visited old haunts in the town and was treated to some really excellent European food, realizing, perhaps for the first time, how impoverished the food is in North America (and, alas, it's much worse in New Zealand!). The highlight of the visit was an energetic hike up to a mountain hut for the night, part of the route being up a cliff on ladders and stairways. The following morning we scaled a formidable mountain, something between a hike and a climb, with plenty of interesting scrambling and fixed chains to hold on to. I took my clarinet (of course! -- it travels everywhere) and entertained the hut to such an extent that I was offered a job as a "Hüttenspieler" on my next visit to Austria. Playing on the peak itself was a grand experience; we discovered later that the music was heard on neighbouring mountains.
On leaving Graz I went, with some trepidation, to Yugoslavia to visit an ex-student in Nis, in Serbia (nearer to Sofia than Belgrade). Although Slovenia declared independence while I was there, and some fighting began, it seemed a long way away from Serbia (both physically and mentally). Tanja and her husband Dejan were wonderful hosts. They live with their two children in their own house, with all the amenities of North America -- two home computers, huge TV, dishwasher, car, everything. I was treated royally. I gave a couple of seminars in the Computer Science Department there and spent the rest of the time as a tourist. We crept into ancient monasteries and watched with awe weird rituals from the Greek orthodox church, with much censer-swinging, icon-kissing, and prayer-muttering. I realised for the first time how Serbia had suffered under five centuries of Turkish rule, and saw the horrible "skull tower," with thousands of Serbian skulls set in row upon row on each side of a huge rough concrete square as a lesson from the oppressors to restless natives. I saw Constantine's country home where he had piped hot water from a spa five kilometers away! My only problem was in Belgrade airport on the way back, contending with masses of British tourists being evacuated from the Dalmation coast. A change of flight plan to avoid stopping at Zagreb (good idea!), an overbooking error, and a computer crash caused a couple of hours of anxious havoc. I was glad to see Graz on the way back and be out of Croatian and Slovenian airspace. We wonder these days how our friends there are faring.
Soon after my return from Europe, we left for New Zealand. Shortly after returning from New Zealand, we left on our annual family holiday! -- this summer was all go. We wanted to spend some time checking out Victoria and then head off to Long Beach on the west coast of Vancouver Island, where we holidayed the first summer after Scott came to live with us. On our leisurely journey westwards from Calgary we stopped in the mountains. First, at Takkakaw falls, we camped with a wonderful view of the huge waterfall, and hiked up the valley to Twin Falls where a waterfall splits as it comes over the top of a cliff. Imagine our surprise to arrive, miles from anywhere, lunch eaten, all exhausted, kids complaining, and find a completely unexpected guest-house where we could buy lemonade and cake! -- it was like hiking in Europe. Then we camped at our favourite-ever campsite, Illecillewaet, in the Rogers pass. We hiked up towards a glacier, climbing ever onward and upward for hours, parents realizing how the kids were growing up as they puffed and wheezed at the back! Eventually Anna's knees gave out and Pam took advantage of the fact by volunteering to go down slowly with her. Nikki and Scott hiked on with Ian until after climbing much farther they emerged on a ridge looking down on the huge glacier 1000 feet below! They had ended up high above a valley with glaciers coming in from every side and a view over the icefield that fed them.
Having dallied three days in the mountains, we drove, and drove, and drove, to Vancouver and the ferry to Victoria. There we stayed for several days in the basement apartment of a friend in the Computer Science Department, checking out the local scene, house market, sailing, and so on. We discovered that at all the beaches the water is too cold (and also too polluted) to swim, and that although the Gulf Islands just off the south-east corner of Vancouver Island are a sailor's paradise, winds tend to be light. They say that Victoria, a retirement haven, is the home of the newly-weds and the nearly-deads, and we found that the Saanich Peninsula on which it sits seemed to be getting a bit crowded. But we certainly enjoyed the atmosphere, the pubs, and the seafood (must have come from another coast!). Soon we left for Long Beach, where we camped for one night in the van and another on the beach itself before getting a spot in the Pacific Rim National Park campsite, our second favourite camping spot. We lazed around the beach for several days. It was far too cold to swim, but that didn't deter us and we played in the surf. We ran along the beach for miles playing Aerobie (a kind of up-market frisbee). We picnicked and explored rock pools and Anna chased boys and Nikki and Scott built forts from heaps of sun-bleached driftwood.
We had the nicest meal in the world for Pam's birthday celebration. There is a small but classy restaurant on Long Beach, run by Parks Canada, where we sat sipping cocktails and watching the sun sink slowly into the Pacific, way out, hushed with awe as it touched the water and again when it finally sank beneath the horizon. We ate crab and mussels and shrimp and sole, with crisp white wine, gazing over the darkening Pacific to China and following the occasional light of a fishing boat. The holiday brought other gastronomic delights: great steaks of salmon, baked to perfection in tinfoil over a blazing campfire, with vegetables ą la Sue Sheen -- buttered potatoes, onions, and carrots, freshly salted and peppered, also cooked in tinfoil. We visited a fish factory in Port Alberni inland on a long inlet from the sea and selected a salmon, had it filleted for us there and then, and packed in ice in our cooler. On the way back we camped on Salt Spring Island (off Victoria), our campsite just yards from the sea, and with friends from Calgary who had moved to the Island a few years ago we watched the ferries passing just offshore in the gathering darkness.
It was a good holiday. Although he didn't know it, we were saying goodbye to Scott. The day after we got back we broke the news to him, and within a few more days he had left our home. It was hard, but easier on him than dragging out a lingering departure.
There are other things we'd like to tell you about. Like the five of us riding on cycle paths through the forest in Kananaskis country, occasionally coming across a break in the trees to look out at snow-covered mountains on every side. Like camping with friends by the Milk River in southern Alberta, lazily floating down the warm chest-deep river, discovering a mudpool and plastering Pam from head to toe in warm squishy mud. Like an extended visit from Harold and Will Thimbleby from Scotland for a few weeks in early summer, when Will exercised Ian's home computer by playing games every minute of the day -- it was glad to have a well-earned rest when he left. Like the animals we saw: a moose that all but put its head in through the van window; three black bears, one in Alberta and two on Vancouver Island; the elk that Pam heard bugling in the early Fall near Banff; the two pods of killer whales we saw cavorting beside the ferry on the way to Victoria; the sealions on the rocks off Long Beach, the rattlesnake basking in the sun at Writing on Stone park. Our trip to Head Buffed In Smashalo Jump ... er ... Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump. Visiting our friends in Camrose in the early Fall, and seeing the Northern Lights flickering on what felt like a transparent cosmic tepee stretching to the stars. Standing round an open fire at night nursing beers and listening to unsteady voices crooning country 'n western songs to the background of a couple of guitars.
Time for some news about the family. Anna's New Year's Resolution was to be a rebel, which she did with a good measure of success, particularly in the early months of the year. Things have quietened down a little -- but only a little; she's a budding socialite and life is always busy. We gave her a flute for Christmas and she has worked conscientiously at it; now she's quite proficient. She continues to excel at swimming, and has participated in synchronized swimming which she enjoys a good deal. She has grown out of the local young-teen radio station and is into heavy metal. She has holes in her ears.
Nikki also swims. She got the top swimming badge last year and cannot work for another until she is 12. She has joined the Swim Club at the local YMCA and swims three times a week. She likes artistic things: she went to clay classes and took individual watercolour painting lessons from an old lady who treated her to cosy tea and cakes partway through the lesson. She seems particularly talented at painting -- her teacher took samples of her work to a course to show neophytes what could be done. She worked hard at the piano last term and passed Grade 2 piano with Honours.
Ian shaved his beard off this summer, having worn it for the promised 12 months -- a great relief for all concerned. He has been playing clarinet in the University Symphonic Band, including a tour of the Far North (one evening in Red Deer). He has been taking classical lessons and also played in a clarinet quartet. This term he has been promoted to Eb clarinet (a little one, about 2/3 the side of a regular clarinet) in the Band.
Well, that's it. We've certainly been sailing the seven seas, or rather flying the seven airways. On separate trips Ian has visited Salt Lake City, Kingston Ontario, Newfoundland, Victoria, and Europe. Pam and Ian went to New Zealand. Anna flew to Toronto. Pam and the girls are travelling to England and Northern Ireland in early November; Ian has a quick trip to Toronto coming up. And we all head off to New Zealand again in December. This has certainly been another profitable year for the airlines. We wonder what next year will bring: less traveling, certainly; more peace, perhaps. Come and see us!
Lots of love and Christmas greetings. May peace be with you.
Pam, Ian, Anna, and Nikki
Anna S. Witten
Seven balloons are fluttering in the air, their bright colours contrasting the blue, cloudless sky. They're tied to the door handle, so that everyone can see them. As you open the door and walk in, cherry red and bright purple balloons adorn the walls, banisters and door knobs, adding colour to the cream furniture. Around the room tables are placed, with purple and red tablecloths, to match the cheerful balloons. On the tables, all sorts of marvelous foods are placed, sundaes with chocolate sauce, chips, cookies, every sort of tart and sweet. On the center table is a huge white cake with red writing that says "Happy Birthday Karen." If you walk downstairs you will find, in the center of the room, a table with parcels of all shapes and sizes wrapped in colourful paper. Hanging from the ceiling are beautiful streamers, tastefully strung twisted and looped. The smell of cake and candy is in the air, and you can feel the excitement like an electric shock. Although the house is all set for a party, something is missing. It's not the games (if you look around the room you can see plenty hanging on the wall), but it is that the house is silent, sinister even with out the sounds of children laughing, singing and shouting. Look up -- the once perky streamers now hang from the ceiling as if trying to reach out and grab hold of something or someone. The cherry red is now the colour of blood, and the purple is no longer full of happiness and wishes, it is now drab, and dusty looking. The food no longer smells appetizing, but sickening, and the balloons are droopy, and sad. If you listen closely, you can hear eerie sounds. The sun is setting, sending gloomy shadows. Instead of lively, everything is dead. The dust is settling.
Buy watercolour paper. It is a thick cardboard-like paper. It is the only paper you can watercolour on. Even though it is expensive you can't watercolour without it.
Try to buy a paint mixing dish. This is a white dish with many different compartments. If you can't; then any white container will do.
Get specially marked watercolour brushes. Try to get thin and thick ones. Have extra brushes on the side.
Keep a ruler, pencil and a white eraser near by. It is important to always have paper towels nearby so that you can mop up the paint that went over the lines. ALWAYS have a pot of water near by to mix your paints with and to wash your brush in. (You can buy these in Barnes on 10 st. N.W.)
I have done 12 paintings. My favorite one is the swan and its cygnet. That one is made from acrylic paints. They are a much thicker paste and give texture to your painting.
Copley Fielding was very famous for his watercolour paintings on marine animals.
Watercolours are usually very vivid and bright. The colour is made of certain plants. If you want indian red you get a plant called The Indian Red and mash it with Gumwater. It was first made in Britain.