Witten's Christmas Letter for 1988

2429 Cherokee Drive
Calgary, Alberta
November, 1988


Hello again and welcome to the post-Olympic edition of the Witten family newsletter, which we trust will provide an attractive alternative to the Queen's speech to accompany the port and cigars after your Christmas Day blowout. Again this year the weather is not helping to write this letter. It's not exactly balmy but skies are blue, the air is dry, Nose Hill, which we see from the study window as we write, is greenish-brown, and the temperature is above zero (just) -- and yes we are talking Centigrade! Ian is still wearing sandals to work, though sometimes his feet get a little chilly at -10. We have had just one snowfall so far. No skiing. Last week when hiking in the mountains to a cirque on Mount Bourgeau far above Banff, knee-level snow was encountered in the cirque itself, and the tarn was frozen hard, but most of the trail was completely bare.

Let's start by telling you about Christmas in Calgary. We always go to the foothills and fell our own tree, choosing it from the area set aside by the Parks people for that purpose. It's a long drive in the cold. You get out of the car and tramp through the snow, which squeaks at every footfall, examining tree after tree, remembering the best one so far in case you have to retrace your steps to find it again. Each kid falls in love with a different tree and tries to persuade the others to agree; arguments develop; tears fall . Finally, when everyone's cold enough to agree to anything, you select the one nearest where you happen to be standing, saw it down, and carry it back through the forest. That's when you find the best trees -- and how much better they are than the measly specimen you killed so hastily! Then you face the ecological dilemma of whether to discard that one, or whether to try to persuade the kids to fall in love with it, warts and all. Then back to Calgary for hot chocolate and egg nog to warm those fingers and toes. As well as decorating the tree inside, we put up lights on the tree outside our house, by the front door (a relatively modest gesture by Calgary standards, where some houses are lit up like supernovas). And this year we left them up till after the Olympics to contribute to the festive atmosphere of Calgary's global party.

Christmas Day begins not too early. Kids are allowed to wake parents at 7.30 (so far that rule has worked ok). The grownup's stockings are brought up and opened -- the children's having been ransacked long before -- and Pam finds the traditional brussel sprout in the toe of hers. Breakfast includes kippers (Ian's once-a-year treat), toast, marmelade, cappuchino coffee. We play Britten's Festival of Carols over and over, since it only happens once a year. Then some time is spent opening presents before the party starts at 11.00. In former years we often didn't get all presents opened and had to leave some until the evening, but now the children are much quicker and less disciplined; they open more and marvel less. Guests start arriving at 11.00 -- yes, you are all invited! -- and the traditional champagne-and-orange-juice begins to flow. By 12.30 the party is in full swing; by 2.00 it is expiring. About now we remember the traditional 12 noon toast to the Witten and Foden families (never mind, it must be noon somewhere over the Pacific). Then we head off for the mass Christmas dinner.

With the Computer Science Department's expatriate British and New Zealand contingent, plus families and visitors, there were some 28 for dinner last year at a friend's house down the road. (One of them, here for a year from Britain, is a Sikh and when Scott first met him he gazed in awe at his turbaned head and swarthy face and asked, "are you a genie?"). One of my graduate students and his wife dropped in for dinner from the hospital where their first child had been born just 24 hours before! We ate in two sittings, kids first; then they were shunted downstairs to watch a videotaped movie while adults had a splendidly civilized meal (as usual, a well-coordinated pot-luck). After dinner we sat around the tree. We all sang carols. Some sang marvelous madrigals. Pam and others played recorders. Our host played guitar. Ian and an NZ visitor played clarinet duets. We all played charades. Then the present-giving (we had all saved our presents to the other families' kids under the tree); Ian playing Santa. It was a warm, traditional, Pickwickian time with home-made entertainment and no electronics. We stagger back home, late, tired, happy. Notwithstanding the menagerie of hyped-up children, not a single tear has been shed. Scott has been wonderful all day, after his first Witten family Christmas -- generally an extremely trying time for kids in his position.

New Year's Eve is another party with much the same crowd. The kids stay up till midnight and join in Auld Lang Syne. You may be surprised to hear that every New Year's Day since we arrived in Calgary in 1980 we have gone to Elbow Falls in the foothills (past Bragg Creek) for a late lunchtime barbecue. Yes, outside! It's usually quite cold, particularly in the shade, but sunny with sparkling snow and very beautiful. We clear off a foot or two of snow from a picnic table and build a fire on the snow in a barbecue pit. We pile it up with wood and get a big blaze going. Last year another family came along too so there were plenty of people to chop wood and feed the fire. Otherwise we have to work hard to make the fire big enough quickly enough to fend off freezing toes and fingers! We make a huge pot of tomato and onion soup, with cayenne to spice it up, and roast bangers and, later, marshmallows. Warm and full, we take a walk in the snow, admire the waterfall which is not yet fully frozen but a wonderful sculpture of huge ice stalactites and stalagmites, try to identify the animal tracks. On the way back to the car we pass our fire again -- someone else has seen it smoking and copied our idea, resurrecting it to warm up another family. Hangover now nearly dissipated, we stop in Bragg Creek on the way back for a cup of hot chocolate to warm us up. That's New Year's Day in Calgary.

February was the Olympics. Olympic fever at last swept us up, although we were not among the hordes of Calgary volunteers. We went and ran with the torch through Calgary for a few hundred yards. Ian had to go to Ottawa for the first week for a meeting of the Canadian national research grants committee, and so Nikki accompanied Pam to the Luge event instead. When he got back we went to see the 90m ski jumping. Perhaps you saw us on TV in the crowd of 90,000? We cheered Eddie the Eagle from Britain, who charmed Calgary with his ineptitude and gall, and gasped at the Flying Finn (the winner) who was able to streeetttch out the last few feet before landing, swooping downhill inches above the snow before his skis finally touched. Although the most eyecatching part of ski jumping is the takeoff and the leap through the air, competitions are won and lost in the last second of the jump. One little wobble, one ski touches, and you're down yards before those with better control. Scott and Pam had previously taken a tour and stood at the top of the 90m tower -- keeping well away from the edge. Later on Pam took Anna to see Brian Orser and Brian Boitano in the finals of the men's figure skating, and Ian watched the hockey final -- Russia vs Finland, the crowd cheering for the Finns who in fact won, but the Russians had already earned the gold. We also took the kids downtown to the medal awards ceremony one evening, where we saw magnificent fireworks and a rather disappointing outdoor laser lightshow (a triumph of technology over art, we decided). It was an exciting evening, being part of a huge, well- behaved crowd reminiscent of Trafalgar Square on New Year's Eve. In general the Olympics were beautifully organized, and made us quite proud of our adopted city! For example, like the rest of the 90,000 crowd we got to the ski-jumping event by driving to a car park on the edge of town, and taking a free bus to the event. We left with the main crowd but only had to wait a few minutes for our bus. We encountered no traffic problems driving round Calgary during the whole Olympic period.

We also met a couple of Australian relations who had dropped in for the Olympics. Pam and Chris had arranged their whole trip to Calgary when they discovered in conversation one day that they had relatives living here -- us! So we saw a bit of them while they were here. We went with them to the most amazing skiing movie called "Fire and ice" -- see it if you ever get a chance. The plot is an empty-headed love story, but it's really a fantastic spectacular about skiing -- skiing over mountaintops, down cliffs, sand-dunes, stairs, over landmines, in the dark with flaming torches.

After the Olympics Pam and a couple of friends skied in to a remote log cabin for a few days. The back-country trail to Skoki Lodge is 15km long, with a hard slog over two passes, but conditions were perfect and the avalanche danger minimal (everyone carried electronic "beepers" just in case), and the rewards of sipping spicy tea on a swing in the sunshine at the end were well earned. The accommodation is catered but basic -- no running water or electricity, all heat and cooking from wood-burning stoves. But what cooking! Even after all the exercise it was unlikely that we weighed less coming out than going in. The place is run by 5 Lake Louise ski employees who, since they spend at least 4 winter months there, have a real incentive to master those stoves. Pam's room was up in the eaves, lit by a paraffin lamp, with home-made wooden bunk, small wood table with water jug and washbowl, and 1 foot square window overlooking a mountain. Night-time trips to the outhouse, while chilly, revealed the most fabulous starscape imaginable.

Our one foreign trip this year was brief but good. We went to Graz, in southern Austria, for a few days in mid-June, without the kids. The Institute of Information Processing, where Ian worked for the summer in 1985, was having a 10-year birthday celebration, and we were part of it. It was a sort of academic festival in the European style, with seminars and dinner-parties, beautifully organized by Hermann Maurer and his wife Ushi. Ian gave a paper called "I, Metamouse" on a (computer) mouse that learns, and also helped to justify his presence by being external examiner for a PhD oral exam. For the sake of the few North Americans there the proceedings were in English, all the German-speaking people being bilingual -- we felt very humble. We recovered from jet lag by going for a major hike the first day, acting as guides for a fellow professor at Calgary, visiting Graz for a few months, who we had never met before (yes!). After driving to a pass near Eisenerz (we know the area quite well, of course), we climbed up and up, past the ski lift, above the treeline, over a high pass, traversing round the back of the mountain high on a very steep -- but still grassy -- slope, through a couple of treacherous, slippery late snow patches and ever upwards and onwards to a lovely wooden hut (Jausenstation). On learning that we were Canadian, and had only arrived the day before, the landlord brought out Schnapps "on the hut" all round and we sat by the enormous stove and ate plates of goulash. Although sunny when we started out, it had turned cold on the way up; the clouds came down and we found the hut through swirling mist. We learned, in broken German, how children from the village below earn pocket-money by toting up loads of juice and beer! We could have stayed the night, and at one point it looked as though we might have to, for bad weather seemed to have set in. But it cleared and, well fortified, we escaped down to the car. We were staying in the best place in town, the Schlossberg hotel at the bottom of the steep hill in Graz that holds the castle. Our suite was charming, with three-foot- thick walls and windows in alcoves, nooks and crannies all over, ancient wooden furniture. A bottle of dry local Schilcher wine greeted us in our room. These Austrians really know how to celebrate! One festive dinner was in the hotel's rooftop gardens. It was the most wonderful experience, and we felt very honored and lucky to be part of it.

On leaving Graz we went to Bonn for another conference. Pam whiled away a day or two strolling by the Rhine, visiting Beethoven's birthplace, before she had to leave for Calgary. Altogether she had had just a week in Europe. Ian returned a few days later, after a memorable evening at Don Pasquale, magnificently staged, which almost turned him on to opera! The conference banquet was held in a winery close to Bonn, in a half-open courtyard surrounded by casks, and he had to play jazz clarinet accompanied by the local, ancient, zither-player (who, it must be said, missed out important bits of tunes and played so repetitiously that he could make anything sound like the "Third Man" -- even "Stranger on the Shore"!)

This summer we had the outside of the house fixed up, not before time, with unlovely -- but maintenance-free -- neutral cream vinyl clapboard lookalike on the bottom half of the house to replace the beautiful old rust-colored wooden weatherboarding, and many new windows to replace the ones where the weatherproof seal was broken and big wadges of ice used to form on the inside in winter! We also had an enclosed wood-burning stove let into the playroom wall to make that room more cheery in winter. Unfortunately, these renovations robbed us of the opportunity to visit Ontario -- we had hoped to spend time in the Sheen's lovely cottage-on-the-island-on-the-lake-on-the-Rideau-canal between Kingston and Ottawa, and see old friends in Toronto and Ottawa.

Instead, we decided to head North. We made two separate trips. One was to Prince Albert in Northern Saskatchewan (it's actually only about half-way up). We drove there at a leisurely pace, taking two days, seeing for ourselves the drought-stricken land, dust blowing in huge clouds, farmers ploughing in their meagre crops. Sue Sheen lives there and since her partner is a long-time huntin' shootin' fishin' type, she has taken up the lifestyle and "gone native". They have a cottage (ie cabin) on a lake north of Prince Albert, and there we stayed for a few days, inspecting the bear-bait they had put out earlier, admiring the bearskin rugs, finding out about ice-fishing, muskrat- and beaver-trapping, how you skin an elk. We ate a lot of elk (elk sausages are wonderful -- and we once went to a potluck supper party in Calgary where someone brought elk lasagna!) and even learned to chew garlic. We played on the beach and swam a little. Then we (just the Wittens) went to Waskesiu National Park for a few days and camped there, by a lake complete with loons (No! not us!) and pelicans. This is where "Grey Owl" lived, an Englishman who masqueraded as an Indian for most of his life, and returned to Britain just after the war in native guise on a lecture tour about conservation and the Indian way of life. He had a cabin by a lake and beavers built a lodge inside it, tracking mud and sticks through the front door. (Yes he was married, to an Indian.) And in Waskesiu lake Nikki picked up a leech, much to our horror, which was a ghastly experience for her. (She seems to have an attraction for nasty parasites; a couple of years back we found a wood-tick burrowing into her scalp a day or two after a hike. But she's also lucky: this year her premium bond won 50 pounds.)

Our second trip North was in August. When the rest of North America was sweltering in record-breaking temperatures and drought, we headed north to chilly weather and occasional rain. We stopped first at Lesser Slave Lake, where we swam and played in great, breaking waves, diving through them and trying to catch the surf. We went on to Maclennan, northern Alberta, to see the hospital where Scott was born. Our intention was to show him his roots and anchor him to the world a little. But disaster struck. As we rounded the corner to approach the hospital, there was a demolition site instead. Huge piles of broken bricks and glass, swarming with bulldozers and cranes, were all that was left of it. We took a picture of a forlorn child standing on the rubble of his birthplace. We visited the new hospital, were surprised to find that many people speak French here, and bought Scott a tiny T-shirt proclaiming that "I was born in Maclennan Hospital". From there we went to Peace River country near Dawson Creek, just inside the Alberta/BC border, where we spent a peaceful few days on a European-style farm owned by Estonian parents of good friends in Calgary. The kids were in their element, picking vegetables and Saskatoon berries, playing with the dog, visiting the nearby horses. One evening we went to see the local beavers at work in their pond, swimming and diving. Somewhat reluctantly we left this little haven, driving west into BC and then south, camping all the way at isolated lakes. We spent a day at the rodeo in Dawson Creek. We swam in Moberley lake and Carp lake. We canoed on Bowron Lakes. We returned to Alberta at Mount Robson, where it rained incessantly (though that didn't stop us going for a hike!), and hurried back to Calgary.

Our summer, if not hysterical, was at least historical. We visited Batoche near Saskatoon, the site of Canada's only civil war (11 people killed, counting both sides) during the Meti uprising in 1885; Battleford near the Alberta/Saskatchewan border, once capital of the entire Northwest Territories before the formation of the Western provinces, and an early Indian trading fort; Dungiven near the northern Alberta/BC border, an early settlement on the magnificent Peace River; and Barkerville, a gold rush town in north central BC, once the biggest settlement west of Chicago and north of San Francisco!

Let's talk about Scott. In many ways this has been a difficult year for all of us, and we regret to say that Scott's future has still not been determined. At some stage we need to go to Court to formalize the adoption -- right now Scott is officially under our care "with a view to adoption" -- but we have not felt able to take that step yet. After an excellent Christmas day, which we had in many ways been fearing, if not dreading -- for stories of adopted children completely ruining their families' first Christmas are legion -- Scott's problems started on Boxing day and his behavior was very bad for the next three months. It's hard to describe bad behavior (and really, you don't want to know!). Most people like Scott when they first meet him, and find him incredibly and unceasingly curious. He will want to know about your watch (penknife, locket, belt-buckle ), want you to wind it up, change the time, lend it to him (don't, if it's fragile). People find his curiosity appealing. But now we don't see this as ordinary curiosity, more as habitual, insatiable, attention-seeking. He asks questions but doesn't really want to know the answers. He can get under your feet, follow you round, demand your attention, constantly for hours days weeks.

An overnight backpacking trip for Scott and Ian was prescribed in September to help their relationship, which is distant. Scott complained solidly for 24 hours, wet his sleepingbag twice (and it was cold), was stroppy and uncooperative the whole time; but on arriving home said sweetly "I really liked going backpacking with Daddy. When can we do it again?" Unfortunately the weather turned colder, otherwise we would have done it again at the first possible opportunity! Mind you, the place we went was breathtakingly beautiful. We were camped in a high valley beside a sparkling lake with hardly anyone else around, the sun shone, the next morning we walked over into the next valley past gigantic, weird rock formations and up above the treeline past more little lakes to a gorgeous crystal pool

To return to Scott. He's certainly not a "normal" child -- not surprisingly after his early experiences -- and it's not clear that a regular family is equipped to deal with his problems. We feel that by the end of the summer, after a year and a half, we had succeeded in getting past the superficial problems, many of which had been caused by his very strict and rigid foster home, and had at last come face the real difficulties caused by neglect in early childhood. And those deeper problems are the ones that scare us. He is presently seeing a psychologist who is fairly guarded in her estimate of what the future might hold for Scott, and for us. She is conducting a six-month evaluation, through play therapy, and we will have some big decisions to make early in the New Year. To us, he still does not feel a real part of the family; more a boarder who is lodging with us. People like him at first, then become infuriated with him, and those few who have actually had to look after him for 24 hours or more finally begin to appreciate what we are facing. However, all is not doom and gloom. We see definite signs of progress and his physical improvement is enormous. Today he swam half a width for the first time -- bullying tactics sometimes pay! And there are signs of real affection for all of us. Perhaps you will meet him next summer.

For we are coming to Britain. Ian will be working with Harold Thimbleby at the University of Stirling during June and July. We will have a house on the campus. It is reportedly a very beautiful place -- where the highlands begin! Stirling is in a wide, flat valley and the hills start on the campus, hills which grow into the Highlands of Scotland. Our address will be

The Witten family, c/o Harold Thimbleby
Department of Computer Science, University of Stirling, Scotland FK9 4LA
Phone (786) 73171.
Please come and visit us. We are about 30 miles northwest of Edinburgh and the same distance northeast of Glasgow. There is a campsite near the University. There is a nice caravan site by a river at Bridge of Allan, just north of Stirling. We are told you can rent caravans there. If you are flush there is always Stirling Castle, but we're not sure whether they take guests (the dungeons may be cheaper). Before arriving there on 31 May we plan to spend a few days with Pam's parents near Guildford, and are hoping to make a quick trip up to Wivenhoe then. After leaving on 1 August we will spend a few days in N. Ireland with Ian's parents and/or sister, and head south for a few more days at Guildford before leaving the UK on 16 August. But nothing is definite yet. There are dozens more places we'd like to visit to see friends, but we're not sure we'll be able to. (For one thing, we may not have a car -- they're incredibly expensive to rent in Britain compared with the cost here.) So please visit us, instead. This is the year for that holiday in Scotland that you've always been promising yourself. See you there!

Before closing we must boast about the girl's achievements. Anna is soccer champion of Alberta (at least her team is, in her age group). Nikki is threatening to be a champion swimmer -- she swam a kilometer a couple of weeks ago. They are both budding authors, and we enclose stories they have written, plus a picture from Scott.

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

Pam, Ian, Anna, Nikki, Scott

The House on Maple Street

Anna S. Witten

The house was old and gloomy it looked kinda spooky. But maybe I better start from the begining. My name's Stephanie and I'm 11. I have blond hair and I'm medioum height. My sister is 14, with long wavy black hair she is medium height to. You might say she's the beauty of the family. Anyway her name is Lisa. She takes after my Dad. I take after my mom. Well we'd just moved from Toronto to here, the edge of Los Angelis. Right now we were staying in some hotel called "LA's Finest" or Best or something like that. And now we were looking for a house. "There are lots of kids Stephanie's age and a few Lisa's age. There is a elementary school three blocks away and a junior high 5 blocks away" the realtor was saying. "Also, there is a community center just down the road." Here she paused. "It is a large bilding, with a pool, a ice rink (in winter) and a consesion. There is also a bulding on the right which has a room for guides, pathfinders and stuff like that." "Well before you tell us all that, can't we go in the house to look around?" my father said. "Oh yes come on then," Mrs. Brooks the realtor said.

A few minuts later we got the door open and we walked into a wide hall. "Mmmm where is that light switch? Aaah here it is!" Mrs Brooks said at last. Then the lights went on very brightly! "Let me turn them down," I said. When the lights were turned down we started along the hall. Then we turned right and came out in a big kitchen. "Wow!" exclaimed my mom. "Just what I was hoping for!" "It has a stove and a fridge that comes with it" said Mrs. Brooks.

Then we walked through to the dining room. It was a big room with chandaliers that were coverd in dust. "It's huge!" exclaimed my dad, "There will be enough room for the big oak table with room to spare.

After we'd taken about five steps out of the dinning room we found our selves in a big room. "A perfect sitting room!" my mom said. A few minuts later we found ourselves back at where we had turned right but this time we turned left and came out in a room a bit biger than the dinning room. "The library" announced Mrs. Brooks.

... to be continued

Wen it raind ruber bans

Nikki C. Witten

Won day in Purpul land it startid to rain then it startid to rain ruber bans. The thing that was good abaut it was that if you had a box lieing oupen and you wer loking for oine you wold get oun. But evribody was tid up. Then a little gerl cald Nikki sed il go to canada and ask Ian Witten if he cold help, but Nikki wos also tid up. But she cold bawns [bounce], so she baunst and baunst and finaly she got to his hous and he untid her and sed "I knot wat il go to god's hous and ask him to stop throing ruber bans. So the next day he went and god had stopt throing them and so Nikki went home and then a feu wiks it raind cotin bals but thats a nother story.