Witten's Christmas Letter for 1999
Christmas has now passed and we're only just starting work on the Christmas letter. Instead of coming up with a lot of excuses (boy do we have some good ones), let's just get on with it.
To begin at the beginning, Pam and Ian ghosted out of Beulah's home marina early in the afternoon of 31 December 1998 and eventually slid into Opopoto, a little baylet on the west side of Onetangi Bay, on the north shore of Waiheke Island. Finding no other boats there, they tucked in under the north headland to avoid the slight swell--a mistake, as it turned out. After supper a fine old yacht flying the Stars and Stripes came in under sail, dropped anchor, and dug it in by reversing the boat under mainsail alone. Ian was very impressed at this display of seamanship. The other yacht, in turn, was soon to be impressed at a display of musicianship as Ian accompanied the sunset with a little light jazz on the clarinet. Following applause, the skipper rowed over and invited us round for a drink. A grizzled old Californian, he had sailed his Lion class boat, built in Hong Kong out of solid teak with beautiful dragon carvings on the bulkhead, alone from the US, and had cruised for some years around the Pacific. He has no engine (that's where he stores the potatoes). No radio. Just a 10-stack player for his jazz CD's. No problem sailing alone round the Pacific, he explained: he had US Navy charts that showed where and when the wind would be under 35 knots 99% of the time, and he stuck to those. (He didn't mention what it was like on day 100.) On returning to Beulah at 11:45 PM we had just filled our glasses when a gentle knocking was heard. No, not the dinghy bumping against the side, the keel on a freak rock (it was low water). A hasty adjustment of the anchor rope and we were able to toast the New Year on schedule, in peace. But only just.
We made lots of little sailing trips this summer, with a wide variety of friends. We'll mention just a few. In February brother Brian, with Rosaleen and son Michael, visited us (from Sheffield). Brian was very keen to sail, the others less so. So the two brothers set off into a strengthening wind and anchored for the night at Rotoroa, a small island owned by the Salvation Army and used as a drying-out place for alcoholics. They must have been tortured by the clinking of glasses as we downed a couple of bottles of wine. Off early the next morning, and the wind contined to increase as we beat across the Firth of Thames to the Coromandel peninsula. Having nearly reached the other side we reefed, then began to reef again with excessive gusts from the land--but changed our mind and dropped the mainsail altogether. Sailing under jib alone we made the rendezvous in Coromandel Harbour and picked up Michael and Rosaleen to take them round the corner for a night on the boat. It blew!--we were flying over the waves under small jib alone, Brian and Ian pretending, to reassure the uncertain crew, that this was all pretty normal. And they were reassured; indeed, they had a blast (literally and figuratively), and Ian was the only one who tossed and turned that night listening to the gusts. On returning to the wharf the next morning we all drove off for a day's sightseeing--the wind was too fresh for Ian to sail back alone as planned. That evening the three tourists departed by car for their trip around the Coromandel peninsula, and the following morning Ian was up at dawn. Easterly gales were forecast but he decided to return single-handed anyway. The wind and sea were quite considerable by the time he reached the marina, but he arrived at noon after a record passage without any incident. Before leaving Brian, Rosaleen and Michael's visit, we must put on record an image of the five of us standing on the sandy bottom of a neck-high natural hot pool, in a shady glade surrounded by exotic native vegetation, tree-ferns and the like, cool glasses of chardonnay raised high to keep out of the water and another bottle at the ready--in pelting (but warm) rain with an umbrella over our heads to avoid diluting the wine.
Later in February we had more visitors, Fran and Doug from Calgary, and Ian took them sailing for a couple of days. By this time we were regularly seeing America's Cup yachts practicing; on that trip we saw five of them. We rounded a navigation buoy just ahead of a Kiwi boat and hardened up into the wind, only to find that it was rounding the same buoy (though not racing). They tried to poke upwind of us but our rounding had been impressively tight and they had to back off and sail through our lee--almost swallowing our dinghy during the manoeuvre. Ian was proud of his old racing skills. We had a flying visit from one of Pam's music friends Christine and her husband Jamil, also from Calgary. Really not time for much more than a Bach sonata and a BBQ as they were on the last leg of a NZ holiday, but we were glad they called in.
In early March Ian received a totally unexpected birthday present--Anna! Overseas for fifteen months, she had a great time in Calgary (we had left her there at the beginning of her trip on returning to New Zealand ourselves), London, where she lived in a house in Ealing with fifteen Kiwis, visited Ian's family in Northern Ireland and Pam's brother near Toulouse, and then returned to Calgary--where (as we reported last year) she got her old job back, working in a health club, and seemed to be very happy. But one day she decided it was time to come home, and the next week she took matters into her own hands and flew back as a surprise, arriving on the doorstep the day after Ian's birthday. Pam didn't recognize her at first!--Anna's friend Louisa had driven her down from Auckland airport and seeing her car in the driveway Pam walked with a cheery "Hello Louisa!" to Anna seated at the kitchen table.
Anna didn't stick around for long--twenty-four hours, in fact, whereupon she was off to visit friends in Rotorua. She spent the next couple of months looking for work in Hamilton without finding anything suitable. She didn't want a job, she wanted the beginning of a career, but had no luck. Then she visited Christchurch for a couple of weeks, fell in love with it, found a job (though it wasn't confirmed until she had returned to Hamilton), and conceived of the idea of registering for a degree programme at Canterbury University. Things happened very fast--and at a time when both Pam and Ian were travelling in Europe--but the upshot was that in July she registered in a four-year programme leading to a Bachelor of Social Work, a vocational degree. She managed to get in mid-year (our university year runs from March to October). Within three days she had chosen her courses, found a house very near the university with about six other students (it varies), and was working part-time to support herself. What with her studies it's a hard and busy life, but she seems to be coping.
Ian visited Christchurch on business for a week in early September, and spent quite a bit of time with Anna. On arrival on a Saturday afternoon, he was whisked off the plane and taken straight to a bar where the band that he joins on trips to Christchurch was playing. Anna, with a couple of friends, came along to the gig. Afterwards another friend drove us both to his homestead at Akaroa, an hour or so distant, where we arrived in the wee small hours and spent the next day. Brent and Suky have a fantastic house, which they built themselves from trees growing on their own land (they had them cut and milled first), with a million-dollar view over Akaroa harbour. They lead a semi-alternative lifestyle, milk the cow (sharing with the calf), make butter and cheese, get eggs from the hens, grow all their own vegetables, and feed scraps to the pig. Suky leads tours of historic Akaroa. New Zealand's South Island would have been French but for the fact that a boatload of French settlers destined for Akaroa tipped off the colonial English when they stopped at Russell in the North Island, whereupon the latter boarded their fastest boat, raced down, and hoisted the Union Jack to welcome the settlers. Pipped at the post; c'est la vie. Anyway, back to Ian and Anna in Christchurch. We went out on the town for delicious sushi, and on to her house for coffee. Student houses take you back a bit!--though the biggest problem in this one seemed to be how to keep the ducks out of the swimming pool, not a dilemma that Ian recalls from his student days. Ian was staying with the Andreaes (in whose house, we guess, Anna was conceived 23 years ago), and Anna joined them for some nice meals. Recently, in November, she came back home for a couple of weeks' holiday after the university year had ended, and was unexpectedly able to get a transfer to the Hamilton branch of the retail outlet in which she works. So she stayed, and we're all at home together this summer and very much enjoying a family Christmas.
But we are getting way ahead of ourselves. After Ian's birthday comes Nikki's, at the end of March. She threw a posh party, dinner preceded and followed by cocktails, for a few of her friends. Strong alcohol in strange mixtures with young people had the predictable effect. One boy put his fist through our garage wall (no, not brick, and easy enough to fix): interestingly, he is an accomplished violin player who was going through serious depression following the theft of his rare, exquisite, and extremely expensive violin. Fortunately his hand was not damaged as much as our wall was. And the kids cleaned everything up themselves. Pam had had the foresight to relieve everyone of their car keys, so apart from a couple who went home by taxi the partygoers spent the night on various floors around our house. Not many takers for bacon and eggs next morning, but plenty for black coffee.
In May Ginger, a school friend of Nikki's from Calgary (she left at age 12), visited for a month with her friend Meghan. It was lovely to hear the house ring with young Canadian voices! But we had to clear up a few misconceptions about our lifestyle here. Yes, we do eat our sheep: Ginger's family apparently thought that this was just a Christmas letter joke. The sheep run around the field, woolly and adorable, have lambs, frolic in the springtime, acquire names and idiosyncratic habits, and--we eat them. Fortunately we didn't serve Ginger and Meghan lamb: it would have been left on the plate. But we did have venison, for our neighbour is a deer farmer and we buy fantastic 100% lean tasty juicy meat in quantity from him, and our delicate city-dwelling visitors found it hard to contemplate the tasty morsels on their dinner plates and stomach (sic) tasteless (sicker) jokes about Bambi.
The three girls had lots of fun together. Nikki introduced her friends to Hamilton nightlife. They drove to Raglan, walked on beaches, visited Rotorua and all the tourist spots. Nikki loved showing them around. And they went black-water rafting near the Waitomo caves. You don wetsuit, helmet and head-torch, and head underground with an inner tube, clambering down a pothole ("tomo" = hole) and ending up in a stream ("wai" = water), jumping down small waterfalls in pitchy blackness and finally floating down a broad underground river gazing at glow-worms far overhead, like stars in a moonless night sky. Being the only ones in their party, the three Canadian girls were treated by their (male) guide to a special underground tour, exploring tortuous passages and squeezing through tiny gaps that ordinary tourists never get to see.
Our next visitors, still in May, were Craig and Kirsten from New York (but Kiwis really). We took them sailing to celebrate Craig's 30th birthday on May 21--late in the sailing season, but not too late. There was little wind, but we sailed (to Rakino), rowed (around the Three Sisters), ate (Ian's usual haute cuisine Thai chicken curry, followed by a pancake breakfast), drank champagne (lots), walked (around Mototapu island), motored (over a windless sea back to the marina). And on the way back to Hamilton we ate delicious kebabs at a favourite haunt: Esmerelda's traditional Lebanese/Maori kitchen in Papakura, alongside taxi drivers and people dining out in their pyjamas ... only in New Zealand, what a contrast with New York.
June was the beginning of Ian's big trip. He had already been on his annual March pilgrimage to Snowbird, of course, preceded this year by a visit to New York, to see the lights and to give a high-profile invited talk at the opening of Rutgers University's digital library project. The speaker who preceded him was the Director of Electronic Programs at the Library of Congress, with an annual budget of US$50M; then Ian got up to describe the New Zealand Digital Library project which he runs on an annual budget of NZ$0 or thereabouts; actually he thought (and plenty of others agreed) that we came off rather well in the comparison. Another noteworthy event on that trip occurred in a taxi to Newark airport: they ran out of gas in the middle of a tunnel under the Hudson river during rush hour. The traffic instantly backed up for miles; the tunnel was quickly closed to all traffic (both directions); an emergency vehicle roared down towards them on the wrong side of the road and gave them a nerve-wracking bumper-to-bumper push, accelerating to 50 mph, out of the tunnel. And following Snowbird was a lightning trip to Microsoft Research in Redmond, near Seattle, which Ian found depressing. The future of computing is being determined by cappuccino-drinking white males between 25 and 30--as culturally homogenous a group as you'll ever meet. There are three women amongst 500 employees, and probably the same number of Hispanics and African-Americans.
Anyway, in June Ian flew to Northern Ireland to spend a week with his parents. Earlier in the year Dad had had to move into a residential nursing home, leaving Mum by herself in the house. It had been a difficult time, but the difficult parts were pretty well over by the time Ian arrived. Dad's new home is at Killyleagh, a little further down Strangford Lough from Killinchy, where Mum lives. He has what is in effect exclusive use of a small sitting room with a fabulous view over the Lough--no-one else uses it because the TV is in the other, larger, sitting room--and no-one else dares to sit in "his" chair that looks out through the window. It really is a lovely view: you can see right across to the other side of the Lough, and check all the boats coming up and down. The water changes colour and texture constantly, a delight to watch. And the home is very nice--Irish nurses are the best in the world, of course. One day Mum and Ian joined Dad for lunch, and there were certainly no complaints about the food! Of course, Mum has had to get used to living all by herself, which is not easy. During his visit Ian sorted out and rationalized the financial arrangements--surprisingly complex--and managed to explain it all to Mum (who until recently had never written a cheque). It seemed to take a real weight off her mind, having been something she had dreaded doing. He also fixed up a few things around the house, and even had time for a race on Strangford Lough in a 75-year old classic racing keeler.
Then from Belfast to Glasgow for a weekend playing jazz with Gary, an ex-member of the Ian Witten trio who deserted New Zealand a year ago for the grey skies of Scotland. Next to Braunschweig, near Hanover, where he gave a lecture at the university and returned to his host's home to meet ... Pam!, who had just flown out from New Zealand. We spent a week together, with Dieter and Uschi. We met them in Graz in 1985, and have since visited them in Newfoundland and Bonn; they have visited us here. We all took a magic trip to Quedlinburg, an ancient town, formerly in East Germany, that escaped damage in the war and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was like walking into the Middle Ages. We happened to be there on midsummer's day, and were treated that night in the castle grounds to MitSommerNacht Traum, not Shakespeare's play but a torchlit medieval celebration with jugglers, acrobats, fire-eaters, a (female) snake-dancer and spider-tamer who wore little else, medieval tradesmen like blacksmith and cobblers, and medieval craft stores. Perhaps the most amazing act was a hypnotist who laid people out on the cold stone castle steps and had young men lift extreme weights and young girls believe (in German of course) that everyone was naked--including themselves. We ate in a brewery, traditional food from that part of Germany (what seemed like whole hogs legs). It really was the most wonderful day.
We also spent a couple of days in Berlin. Ian gave a seminar at the very ancient Humboldt University. Unfortunately, the Computer Science institute is not in the ancient part but in a very boring outlying suburb, far from the city, with a drab communist aspect. We were guided round Berlin by Joscha, a computer science student who last year spent a semester at Waikato under Ian's tutelage. He was an excellent guide, and we loved East Berlin particularly. As soon as you cross the old border you enter an expansive world of broad, wide, Russian-style boulevards. We walked up Unter den Linden and along FriedrichStrasse, marvelled at the scale of the Brandenburg gate, visited the Checkpoint Charlie museum, admired the plush Adler hotel around which swarmed hundreds of swanky Mercedes. (Incidentally, in Berlin we found a Mercedes we could afford--a bicycle!) We visited the Reichstag, recently rehabilitated with an enormous glass dome inside which is a curving pillar of mirrors that can only be described as a death-ray machine (its real purpose, apparently, is to bring natural light to the debating chambers below). We climbed the dome and surveyed the skyline. In each quadrant there are hundreds of huge cranes: Berlin is one massive construction site. Most places are being rebuilt as they were before the war, but we saw one church that had deliberately been left in a bombed state as a reminder. Joscha walked us around the art district: it was vibrant. One huge multistorey brick wall of an apartment building was painted bright green and on it were mounted huge model cows, several times life-size, sticking out horizontally as though grazing a vertical field, painted in incredible gaudy colours. We ate on the street in a railway car turned café. We visited a live theatre/music complex and saw a hilarious mime show (Ian's German is certainly not up to understanding theatre dialogue). Berlin is truly an exciting place and we loved it.
In Germany we parted: Pam to London to visit her parents, Ian to Rome to visit the Food and Agriculture Organization, a UN agency that he is doing digital library work for. (He came away with a cheque for US$50K for the research project, so it was worth it.) It's housed in a spacious complex built by Mussolini (in fact, it or something very like it featured in the recent movie Tea with Mussolini), and from the roof garden you look down on the Colosseum. The rooms in the FAO are named after the countries that sponsored them, and Ian's talk was, appropriately, in the Canada room, whose back wall was covered by a huge relief map of Canada, carved in wood. There was not much time and a lot of work, but he managed to fit in a flying visit to the Capello Sistina (Sistine Chapel), having to practically race through the Vatican Museum, rushing past all sorts of wonders, to get a few minutes in the Chapel. It has been renovated since he and Pam went in 1968 and is truly incredible: light, airy, and with murals whose perspective is so real it's hard to believe they're pictures and not sculptures. He left for St Peter's Basilica, but went the wrong way and ended up walking right round the Vatican City, whose impregnable walls are still defended by the Pope's private army. Quite a hike! --it's enormous. A quick look at the church, take in Michangelo's Pieta, then taxi back to work.
And now to Romania. Dan picked Michel and Ian up at Bucharest airport for the two or three hour drive to Brasov. The work relationship is complex, but briefly: Antwerp-based Michel, a sort of "humanitarian entrepreneur" who consults for UN agencies and other NGOs, builds collections of humanitarian information (medical and survival books, etc.) using Ian's digital library software, and his partner Dan runs a firm in Brasov that converts paper documents to machine-readable text files. Both have visited Waikato, along with some Romanian employees. We ate with Dan's non-English-speaking family (mother piles visitor's plates with impossible quantities of food, you know the story). Ian stayed in a ghastly hotel (the best in town) with a virtually unfurnished room and intermittent water supply. Walking Brasov's cobbled streets was a favourite occupation. Yes, they have McDonald's (though only recently), and a dodgy-looking American-style nightclub called (wait for it) Bimbos. The highlight of this trip was a visit to Dracula's castle at Brann in the Carpathian mountains. A fantastic castle, not huge but complex, on multiple levels with an internal courtyard, built on a tall rocky outcrop and with a commanding view on all sides. It's right on the border between Transylvania and the neighbouring state (Moravia, perhaps), and was erected as a private customs-collection post. Dracula is modelled after Vlad the Impaler, a medieval figure who spent a lot of time impaling people on wooden stakes. A moral and ethical man, he only impaled baddies. In fact he did so well at ridding the land of thieves that a traveller who accidentally left a bag of gold beside the road and returned for it three days later--would you believe it?--found it intact. An entire army of invading Turks suddenly found their heads mounted on stakes and planted in a field. Impaling baddies was truly what Vlad enjoyed best. But he eventually fell foul of the law and spent a few days in Brann castle under armed guard. When his captors woke him the next morning, they found that he had caught all the rats in his cell and skewered them on a piece of wood, thus inventing the shish kebab.
The next leg was from Romania to Bled, Slovenia, in the mountains between Ljubljana and the Austrian border. For those of you who have not already nodded off, we need to cut this tale short: suffice it to say that you really must visit Bled. It's the only place in the northern hemisphere where a New Zealand dollar goes as far as it does at home; yet it's incredibly scenic--just like the very nicest tourist spots in Austria, but far cheaper. Ian was at a conference there. Then by train to Vienna, where he stayed with friends for a few days and gave a seminar at the University. Highlights: the museum of ancient musical instruments, an excellent sheet music store (Pam and Ian had visited another in Berlin), and an evening at a vineyard close to the city. Then to London, to catch up briefly with Pam and spend a weekend with her parents. We walked to Polesden Lacey, the nearby stately home, and it being the Fourth of July we listened under the stars to the Glenn Miller band, led by Glenn Miller Jr. himself. Then to Middlesex University in North London (more seminars!), a buffet at the House of Lords (miniscule canapés but passable wine and a great view over the Thames), and a night with the Thimbleby family, playing clarinet music at a barbecue. Then to Heathrow where Pam and Ian met up once again and flew to New York.
We spent a few days in the Big Apple (including a seminar at Bell Research and a delightful tour round neighbouring parts of rural New Jersey, counteracting Ian's horrific impressions of New Jersey that until now have been based solely on the hell-hole of Newark). Although we were told that the weather was very mild, we found it quite warm enough. But we did lots of tourist things. Eventually we managed to drag Pam out of the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. We ate at Katz's (same table as where Harry met Sally, though the food didn't have quite the same effect), climbed the World Trade Center--now there's a view!--and Pam coveted jewellery at Tiffany's. We even went sailing, from the Manhattan Yacht Club, on a 25-foot fibreglass sloop. We dodged the Staten Island ferry (not as easy as it sounds, they go so fast, relentless and merciless) and sailed out to the Statue of Liberty, then watched the sun setting behind the World Trade Center on the way back. Very lumpy seas, with all those ferries, and not too much wind; but it was a really great experience. Leaving New York for Los Angeles and Auckland, we discovered an error in Pam's ticket: it was for the following day! The airline agent changed her Los Angeles ticket, and assured us that, though the flight to Auckland was fully booked, we should have no difficulty in changing the next leg once we got there. But when we went to the desk in LA they just laughed. The flight was massively overbooked and they were paying people handsomely to stand down. So Ian stood down, collected US$500, meal tickets, and a free hotel room; and we spent an unscheduled extra day in the US. Unfortunately our baggage was irretrievable and we had only the clothes we stood up in (not much, and dirty), so we spent the day just lounging around, sort of recovering from jetlag in advance. And finally, Auckland and home, where Nikki had done an excellent job of looking after our house and clearing up the remnants of any teenage parties that might possibly have been held here.
Pam reckons that next year she'll have worked her way into the ideal job. She has been going in to school every day, part of the time working with special needs children, partly teaching recorder classes, and partly teaching a new music programme of her own devising. The total number of hours has not been great, not really enough to justify all the travelling, but she spends quite a bit of time at the school (including lunchtimes) and participates fully in school activities: the job serves as a social focus as well as a workplace. The high point of the year was the school concert. Pam proposed the idea and it was eagerly accepted; then she was faced with the job of implementing it. It took a lot of organizing--far more than she had anticipated!--but she found it extremely rewarding. The concert was a huge success. Pam also undertook some not very subtle brainwashing of the new Principal (a self-proclaimed jock who was of the opinion that music was just fun and not as essential a part of the school curriculum as, say, rugby), and choice phrases like "whole-brain learning," "life-long hobby" and "performance confidence" spiced up many a staff-room conversation. Consequently the school music budget is being increased next year (despite very tough times fiscally), and the consequent increase in Pam's working hours will provide a better justification for her daily trips to Cambridge. Pam has started piano lessons, partly for fun but also with a view to being better able to accompany her students. The new challenge has certainly been interesting, but there's a long way to go before she's proficient enough to accompany anyone with confidence, and her brave attempts so far often leave the students giggling.
Ian has been working hard, too hard, this year. (Some people who receive this letter seem to think he doesn't work at all.) He has published two books--a second, greatly expanded version of Managing Gigabytes and a brand-new book called Data mining; he is extremely proud of both. Go check Witten at a bookstore near you (e.g. amazon.com) and you'll find them, with reviews. He (with others) won "best paper" prize at an international conference on digital libraries. The FAO in Rome and UNESCO in Paris are sponsoring his digital library software; with it they produce CD-ROMs of essential humanitarian information (like how to dig a pit toilet in the desert armed only with a Windows PC with CD-ROM drive) which are widely distributed in developing countries. Even the BBC is using his software for their million-plus-entry catalogue of radio and TV programmes. Collections have been produced in Chinese, Arabic, and Maori; UNESCO has produced a French collection on the Sahel region of Africa, and the Pan American Health Organization has produced a Spanish "Virtual Disaster Library" (the name sounds better in Spanish). Web lovers can see all this stuff at www.nzdl.org.
Down on the farm, our little ram Sean (named after Shorn in Wallace and Grommit) came to an unfortunate end this year. The neighbour ran his sheep into the paddock next door and there was a face-off between the rams through the fence. Unfortunately a fencing board came down and the face-off turned into a head-on. The neighbour's ram came through and they started ramming. They're not called rams for nothing! By the time our other neighbour noticed what was happening (we were out) and managed to separate the combatants, Sean was out for the count. Headstrong, but not headstrong enough. When Pam got home the neighbour advised her to "wait until tomorrow: he'll either be dead or alive with a helluva hangover." Wise words! But us pansy city-dwellers couldn't bear to see Sean suffer, so the vet was called; her advice was much the same (plus a hefty bill). With t.l.c. (i.e. quarantine and a refreshing bucket of water) Sean lived through the next day, and the next, and the next. He seemed to be getting better. But then he dropped dead. Heady stuff!
Recently, our duck Gladys gave birth in the woodshed to fifteen ever-so-cute ducklings. They were gorgeous--and she looked after them meticulously. We saved them from the cat and the dog. We gently lifted them back into place whenever they got separated. But on the fifth day Gladys started commando training, taking her brood on long forced marches around the garden. Some got left behind. We lifted two so that they could catch up; Gladys accelerated and left them behind again. Perhaps we should have mowed the grass--ducklings have such a hard time, it's like a jungle with no machetes--but we eventually moved these two weaklings to the sick bay, a grass-filled shoebox in the laundry, and gave them water and soaked oats. But they pined, and languished, and eventually, half-dead despite our efforts, we returned them to Gladys. In the morning they were gone. By the afternoon we were down to twelve. Gladys relentlessly continued her forced marches. More got left behind. The Count (Drake-ula, you see) was indifferent to their plight. The next morning there were still twelve. But that afternoon, just nine. We found one or two of the dead ones, but not many. After a few more days of forced marches, the magnificent brood of fifteen was reduced to three: Huey, Dewey, and Louie. They still thrive. But nature is harsh, and hard to comprehend.
We still have sheep: this year, just one lamb, who Nikki named "Ron". Talking about sheep, we came across an article in the New Zealand Herald about new slang. Here is a direct quote. "'Why do speakers on post-industrial Britain and Australia still need a dozen or more terms for flakes of dung that hang from the rear of sheep?' asked Thorne, who is director of the language centre at London's King's College. Among the terms cited for dangling dung are dags, dangelberries, dingleberries, jub-nuts, winnets, and wittens." Where do they get this stuff? Dargaville?
We had a couple of huge gum trees in our back field taken down this year. It seemed like a good idea, before they fell on the house. But it cost a fortune. They didn't really fell the trees, they dismantled them limb by limb. A large crane came along, and several lumberjacks swarmed round the branches in climbing harnesses and crampons. The trunks were deposited into great trucks. It was all quite exciting. But then you face the problem of what to do with the stumps. You can get them ground down, but that costs many hundreds of dollars (and felling them had already cost thousands). We came across a guy that carves large-scale pieces of wood into chairs, elephants, kiwis ... so we asked him what he could do. He spent four hours (at only $35/hour) and made two enormous armchairs, slightly angled together in a conversational way. They're a talking point, a great sculpture--and the bargain of the year. Sit in them and you feel like a small child--your feet don't touch the ground--or, alternatively, something in the Lord of the Rings. (As a matter of fact, they're filming the movie in New Zealand, and Hobbiton has been built not far from here, but as far as we know they're not using our chairs--though come to think of it there have been a few strange hooded strangers slinking around at dusk.) We're left with just one remaining gum tree, fortunately it's the one the blue herons nest in every year.
In the September school holidays Pam spent a week at a recorder workshop in Nelson, nestled in the beautiful Marlborough Sounds at the north of the South Island, with 120 other recorder players from throughout New Zealand. This jamboree occurs every three years, and this was Pam's third. There were many excellent tutors, both local and from Australia, and the real stars were the Amsterdam Loeki Stardust Quartet, the world's premier professional recorder group, who travelled all the way from Holland for the occasion. (They're named after Loeki the Lion, the star of a Dutch children's TV programme for which they wrote and performed the theme tune.) They were relaxed and friendly, not at all standoffish or intimidating or judgmental, and joined in wholeheartedly with all the crazy activities--like musical skits and renaissance dancing. The night after arriving directly from Europe they gave a superb concert in Nelson Cathedral. They brought with them about twenty recorders ranging from the two metre great bass to the tiny garklein the size of your little finger--just half of their collection. It was a fantastic experience, and a real treat for Pam. The culmination was a work specially commissioned from Gareth Farr, one of New Zealand's up-and-coming composers, a drummer and drag artist whose performance speciality is the Indonesian gamelon drums. It was scored for recorder quartet (the Loeki group), Maori instruments, and a recorder orchestra formed from everyone who attended the workshop--including young children, part of the youth programme. The final performance, again in Nelson Cathedral, was incredibly exciting. It opened with an eerie solo conch blast that raised the hairs on the back of your neck, followed by a deep rumbling on great basses and contrabasses that gradually swelled through the entire recorder range, then the recorder quartet burst in over the top on sopranino and descant recorders. Pam had the time of her life, assisted by plentiful superb local white wines and seafood, and was often playing recorder from 9 AM until close to midnight.
Ian is thinking of renaming his bass-drums-clarinet jazz trio "The dangleberries". When ex-pianist Craig was here in June, they played in the local JBC--jazz blues concept--jazz club, along with a singer, to a large audience consisting mostly of computer scientists. The word "trio" is used loosely. They played again just before Christmas. By then Ivan, owner of the JBC, had relinquished his alcohol license in order to attract a younger crowd; Nikki immediately dubbed it the "juice and biscuits club." Anyway, there was a good audience including underage youth as well as computer scientists; Ivan's ploy may be working. At that gig the centrepiece was Matangi, a clarinet group (trio/quartet/quintet/whatever) that meets weekly at our place; we played some arranged jazz numbers that Ian had picked up in Berlin and Vienna to a very appreciative (and surprisingly attentive) audience. Just before Christmas Ian's clarinet group also played at a concert for the homeless--turned out it was not an audience of vagabonds but local worthies raising funds for a homeless shelter. And the Waikato Sympathy Orchestra (they hate it when Ian calls it that) has been going from strength to strength, with gigs at the local winery (Sunday lunch and opera songs), and the local Christmas festival (Hallelujah chorus with a choir of 1500), as well as some very challenging concerts of "serious" music (Dvorak's non-New-World symphonies, listen out for them, they're fantastic).
Our millennium project is to produce a compendium of Christmas letters, dating back to when we started in 1985. We're raiding the family photograph album to get a colour picture for each page. But don't worry: you won't get a copy--there are 150 pages and we can't afford such a large printing. But you will be able to download it from the Net. Watch this space.
Love and peace and belated Christmas greetings. Happy new Millennium.
Pam, Ian, Anna and Nikki
Cleo, Tanzi, Gladys, The Count, Huey, Dewey, Louie, Ron,
Gene, Jean, Spooky-II, Lucy, Urshula Wednesday, and all the gang