Witten's Christmas Letter for 1993

Tauwhare Road
New Zealand
November, 1993


Well, happy Christmas; letter time again. We don't seem to have done much this year. Looking back, the time has mainly been spent ferrying the kids round! I guess you know the feeling. We have had quite a few visitors, but haven't done much visiting ourselves. Anyway, here goes.

A couple of interesting things happened towards the end of last year after we wrote our last epistle. Ian had organised a conference for New Zealand graduate students here at Waikato at the very end of October, and it was a huge success. From an originally anticipated attendance of a dozen or so it grew to over 80 participants, with several graduate students coming from each of the country's seven universities. The conference was held in the University's marae. A "marae" is a Maori meeting place. The main building is the meeting house or "whare," and this is where we slept and held the conference sessions too. Accommodation was 40 or 50 mattresses on the floor, unisex, and worked really well although most people were a bit uncertain, maybe apprehensive, at first. Ian slept there too. In the mornings we had to put our belongings to the side and pack up the mattresses too so that we could have the presentations there. This was a great way of preventing sleeping in and making sure that everyone was at the sessions! We had a special dispensation to allow computers in the whare. In fact, one of the rules of Maori meetings is that interruption is not permitted, which creates problems when trying to keep sessions running on time, so we had a computerised "time's up" system where speakers recorded their voice in advance and were automatically interrupted by themselves at the end of the allotted time. We ate in a separate refectory on the marae complex -- sort of do-it-yourself meals, though one was a traditional "hangi" or underground barbecue. There was an excellent ablutions block with lots of showers and plentiful hot water, so it was all really quite civilised. One evening the entire conference came round to our house for a barbecue. Visitors have to be welcomed on to the marae in a ceremony called a "powhiri," and in fact the local group had to be welcomed on in a pre-powhiri powhiri so that they could then serve as hosts for the people from other universities. This involved speeches, rubbing noses with everyone, stuff like that. It was all a lot of fun and a great way for Ian to stamp his mark on New Zealand computer science.

Another noteworthy event was that Pam and Ian broke loose for a long weekend and went up the Coromandel peninsula with no kids. Just imagine! We roughed it, sleeping in the van in carparks at beauty spots -- lovely morning views! We went right up to the end of the Coromandel and walked out to Cape Colville, the northern-most point. Near the end there's a mountain rising over 3000 feet from sea level, Moehau, which according to legend represents the prow of an enormous canoe that stretches back southwards 50 or 60 miles to the stern, another mountain at Te Aroha. We climbed Moehau, up a slippery, muddy track that served as a stream-bed too, through dense semi-tropical rain forest. Pam rested near the top while Ian went on -- it was a bit cloudy so the views weren't quite as spectacular as they should be, though you caught glimpses that were pretty spectacular nonetheless. To separate when hiking (sorry, "tramping") is New Zealand's number one bush crime due to the density of the rain forest, and we discovered why when Ian got half-lost on the way back and nearly missed Pam. New Zealand bush is amazing; you really can get disoriented in seconds and once you're lost that's it. We also went to a hot-water beach: you dig in the sand at low tide and sit in shallow pools of hot water. You need a spade, or alternatively, the lazy person's way is to do as we did and go at the same time as a bus-load of well-equipped, extremely industrious German tourists. They dug holes for fun, and moved on to dig more; meanwhile we lazed in them. The water is really hot! The tide comes in slowly but relentlessly, despite all your Canute-like imprecations, and you bank up your hole to keep the waves out. Then one sweeps through the fortifications and your hot bath turns suddenly cold. It was lovely -- we were there for hours.

Early in December Ian took part in the annual Hamilton to Whangamata cycle ride. Along with thousands of others he rode the long road from Hamilton north-east to the sea. It took him 6 hours and 42 minutes -- don't forget those 42 minutes, they were the worst! -- and was a real sense of achievement. A couple of graduate students persuaded him to go and looked after him on the way. It's a weird experience starting off with several thousand cyclists. You're in the midst of a sea of helmets, as far as the eye can see; there is a countdown; the gun goes; and ... you're off!!! ... except that nothing at all happens. Many minutes later the pack starts crawling along, on foot; a few brave ones mount and bash into each other, riding slowly and jiggling to keep upright; after another five minutes you start to ride too; and it's 20 minutes before you feel that you have really got going. But not to worry, there's another 6 hours ahead to get used to that feeling of being on wheels. It's flat for the first half, and then the hills start; a long slow uphill gorge that goes on forever; a brief downhill; and then a very windy up-and-down slog before the final flat run to the sea. Plans are in place for this year's ride; we're planning to organise a team from the lab called the ToURING MACHINES (a computer science joke: groan).

And then there was Christmas. Pam's parents were here, and her brother Graham came down from Auckland with his small daughter Emily and her mother Genevieve, so it was a real family occasion. For Christmas dinner we invited Ian's two graduate students from Calgary who were at Waikato for the summer, so there was quite a party. It was a lovely sunny day, and following afternoon dinner we frolicked in the pool. We even had a pi–ata -- very Mexican -- and bashed it with sticks outside, much to Emily's delight. Boxing day we went to the beach to try out the new boogie board (mini-surfboard) and it was hard in the end to wrest it from Pam's mum who was having the time of her life out there in the rollers. Anna and Ian even tried to go (snow) skiing over Christmas -- there was skiing at Mount Ruapehu a couple of hours south of Hamilton -- but they were unlucky. It was chucking it down with rain at the ski slope; skiing was cancelled for the day so they came straight back. What a disappointment.

But we have been downhill skiing. Anna went to a ski camp in July, and we took her there and had a day on the slopes ourselves. It's very different from in Canada. For a start it was raining. We were driving through the tundra up to the mountain in pouring rain, glad we'd decided against hiring skis at the nearby village and feeling that this was a most bizarre kind of ski trip. However, as the road climbed the rain turned to slush and eventually, somewhat to our surprise, to wet snow. There wasn't too much snow on the slopes, and rocks were quite a hazard. So were skiers. Our skill level was probably above average on the slopes that day, which is a far cry from the rather pathetic showing we make in Canada. Here we had to ski defensively; people were always falling over in front of us. And things are organised differently. For example, a ski patrol person told Pam on the lift that it was a "bloody lousy day" and we should have saved our money! -- in Canada it's part of their job to enthuse gushingly all over everything no matter how awful the conditions. Mind you, he was right; slopes in the Rockies would have been deserted. And when we rented our skis and boots on the slope (which was expensive -- it was all expensive!) we had to queue up again and pay extra to leave our shoes there. Little things, but really it all felt very different from the incredibly well organised ski scene in Canada.

Anna had a great time at her ski camp. She was staying in a lodge on the mountain, skied every day for a week, got to know the mountain really well, and met a lot of new friends. It was a Christian Fellowship youth camp; they run a lot of them here. Nikki attended one for a week in January on Ponui island not far from Auckland. It was a water camp and they did a lot of swimming, and some sailing too. Unfortunately she didn't feel very well for most of the time and so she didn't enjoy herself all that much. Nikki also went on an outdoor adventure course based in Hamilton during the August holidays. This one was non-residential. She had great fun. They did some abseiling (rappelling for North Americans) down the side of a bridge in Hamilton and then went out to a climbing area out of town and did the real thing -- climbing up and abseiling down.

During January we rented a boat at Whangaparoa, north of Auckland. It was a lovely vessel, 27 feet or so, and slept 5 comfortably. We rented it from Genevieve's step-father, and Graham was with us for part of the time. We sailed out of the marina in a strong wind and choppy sea and set sail under jib alone. Our plan was to reach out and around Whangaparoa peninsula and run northwards on the sheltered lee side to pick up Graham from a pier in an estuary later in the day. Reports vary depending on who you ask. It was a gorgeous day and wonderful to be afloat, accompanied by a cool beer, skippering this handsome yacht. On the other hand two or three of the crew lost their lunch over the side (there were only four of us on board) and soon things had degenerated to the point where the skipper had to fetch his own beer from the cabin. Can you imagine? We rounded the peninsula to find the sea just as choppy on the lee side, in complete contradiction to the laws of physics, and the crew's morale decayed almost to the point of mutiny. However, we made it to the estuary and motored up the narrow channel, dodging heart in mouth between the moored yachts with a cross-wind and a foul tide. At a critical point the phone rang -- cellphones can be a curse! -- it was Graham offering us well-meant but under-appreciated advice from the shore. We picked him up nevertheless. Most of our 5-day period was spent around Kawau island in the Hauraki gulf (it's marked in the atlas; have a look!). On the island is "Mansion House," a one- time Governor General's residence that certainly lives up to its name. We walked on terra firma (a welcome experience for some) across a carpet of pine needles that reeked of Canadian nostalgia, admired the peacocks strutting round the lawns, ate ice creams. We circumnavigated the island, moored in the lovely sheltered anchorage in a channel in the interior, lunched on desert islands, explored wrecks in the rowing boat. Swimming at night was a magical experience because when disturbed, the water shone with phosphorescence. As you swam your attention was distracted by luminous flashes from your hands and arms as they swept through the water, and looking from the boat above your whole body glowed weirdly greenish. It was glorious weather, usually some wind but not too much, and hot, hot sun. Although no-one was ill again, the crew never quite recovered from that first afternoon, and felt a little uncertain constantly rocking on the water. The captain, however, had a wonderful time and can't wait to get back.

Also in January we went for a week's camping holiday to the East Cape. This is like the East Pole, really; the easternmost part of the whole world (pretty well). You drive round the shore of the Bay of Plenty where the beaches carry on for miles, each bay different from the others. We tended to stop at commercial motor camp sites where there was something to interest the girls (namely, boys), and all the comforts of home (showers). We made it to the East Cape; you stand there and look out to a little islet just off the shore called East Island; far beyond that, out of sight, is a more famous island called Easter Island. We saw a movie in the world's easternmost cinema -- it was Black Robe, a Canadian film. The girls opted for a day of horse trekking up in the mountains. We arranged it by phone and when we arrived there was a Maori lady waiting to help them saddle their horses and ride off into the sun. I think both sides felt a little trepidation, but when when they returned they had all had a great time and were the very best of friends. Anna had spent three weeks on a school trip several months before, building tramping trails in the remote Urewera mountains. So she led us on a walk to the place where they had lived. We drove as far as we could, along a tiny dirt road into the back of beyond, then took to our feet. We walked until the road petered out into a narrow track and then carried on up a beautiful valley for around three hours. Finally, in this remote place far from roads or any trappings of civilisation, we spied up in the valley a brightly- painted marae. This was where the school party had stayed; their food had been helicoptered in. It was fabulous! There were no mod cons of any kind except (!) for a swimming hole in the river for washing. The marae was unoccupied; apparently the local Maoris come in at weekends on horseback. Anna proudly showed us the paths she had made, and described the engineering problems they had encountered. Eventually we left this gorgeous place and had to hurry to reach the car before nightfall.

Apart from these two little holidays, our summer was full of visitors. We had visitors for almost six straight months. It started with Dave, a graduate student from Canada, in October/November; then Pam's parents over Christmas and the New Year; then Ian's parents in February and March; then Pam's aunt at the end of March. There was a brief respite before a couple from Canada came to stay in July, and a friend from Scotland, and friends from Germany in August. It has been a sociable year. Fortunately we had part of a double garage out the back converted into a comfortable sleepout, with its own bathroom with shower and a little deck out through patio doors so that you can sit and have breakfast outside looking out over the sheep. This wasn't ready until after Christmas, but has been well used since then, not just with visitors but when the girls have friends over they often stay out there for some privacy and a feeling of separateness. We -- particularly Pam -- have taken these visitors to Rotorua (smelly thermal area) and the local beaches, time and time again. Ian and his two Canadian graduate students went on an exciting little trip black-water rafting -- the girls did it last year. You put on a wetsuit and are led down into the bowels of the earth, crawling through a hole to an underground river -- probably the Styx. All sorts of excitement awaits you there, including leaping blindly off the top of a waterfall into the pitch black void clutching an inflated inner tube as though it were a rosary; floating lazily on your back gazing wonderingly at the fantastical glow-worms on the ceiling a thousand miles above; suppressing your rising panic under the cave roof only an inch above the surface of the water, everything submerged but your nose, the tip scraping the rough rock above.

Ian made his by-now-annual pilgrimage to the data compression conference at Snowbird, Utah, at the end of March; then on to Calgary for a week's nostalgia; and then east to see his "second family" the Sheens in Oakville and visit a former student in Kingston, Ontario, before a long and very tedious 36-hour journey home. He could not ski at Snowbird because he had broken a collarbone shortly before in a one-vehicle bicycle accident on a slippery road in the rain, cycling to work. For a while his party trick was flexing his shoulder and audibly scraping his bones together. Nevertheless he walked in the Rockies at Calgary and was generally wined and dined -- along with some work, of course. Meanwhile, back at the ranch so to speak, and unbeknown to Ian, Pam sold the cow and used the proceeds to throw a party! If you think this sounds amazing, so did Ian on his return. However, it transpired that the party in question was not a wild and bacchanalian orgy for an all-too-briefly liberated woman, but rather more respectable: a birthday celebration for Nikki. Later in the year Anna had a protracted 16th birthday party. Several friends came to stay from school, as well as her boyfriend from Gisborne and his friend. So we had a long weekend full of active and hyperactive teenagers, including a barbecue party when some others came round. It was fun! -- and did the house ever seem quiet when they had left. Incidentally, Anna came top in her age group in the Waikato-wide Alliance Franaise spoken French competion. It's the first time she has entered any kind of competition, so the award gave her self-esteem a huge boost. Moreover, she has recently taken up rowing with a passion, and according to her coach has a natural aptitude for it. Not to be outdone, Nikki has recently started sailing, and has the distinction of sinking an Optimist sailing dinghy, which is widely considered to be unsinkable, on her first trip out. She didn't sink it far though -- the lake is only three feet deep.

Pam started a part-time job in a bookshop in Cambridge in March, and another in an up- market shop selling exclusively New Zealand made pottery, gifts, jewellery, and suchlike. This means she's working almost full-time, which has required some adjustment from us all. She went to a recorder workshop in Wellington in May. She was picked up by a party from Auckland on their way, and drove down and back with them. It was an intensive week of playing, concerts, lectures, and master classes given by professional recorder players from Britain, Australia and New Zealand. Exhausting but stimulating. She just received as a birthday present a lovely treble (alto) recorder made for her by David Coomber, an Auckland instrument maker. So she's all set for lots of playing. Unfortunately (for her), her teacher won a much-coveted scholarship to study in Holland and it looks as if she may have to go to Auckland for tuition.

Ian has been doing some playing too. He continues to play with the Waikato Symphony Orchestra, whose name sounds grander than the music it makes. Recently he was promoted from deputy second clarinet to temporary first clarinet, and played the first clarinet part in some very interesting and challenging music: Mendelssšhn's Fingal's Cave overture and some dances from Smetana's Bartered Bride, a Bizet symphony and some short pieces by Elgar and Ravel. It really was quite an experience, with concerts in Hamilton and Raglan (the "western tour"). Nerve-racking, with some very prominent entries and solos, but very worthwhile. Most of the other principal wind players (and some of the strings too) are music teachers, and it's a struggle for a mere amateur to keep up the standard. The clarinet group he plays in has been quite active recently, with top billing in a concert in Te Aroha (the stern of the mythical canoe, remember?) and the odd garden party. They played in a charity fashion show not too long ago. It took place in a large house outside Hamilton, and we were seated at the back of a landing at the top of a magnificent double staircase, six clarinettists, making beautiful music before the show to amuse the guests who were chatting politely and sipping wine. Out of the blue, a knot of near-naked nubile nymphs made a surprise appearance on the balcony and wiggled their way seductively down the stairs in front of our very eyes. The show began with underwear, and not much of it. It was perhaps the most challenging musical experience a man could have, trying against all odds to keep eyes down on the music and concentrate on what was being played. Our leader, after a few bars rest, lifted his hands up to play a solo, eyes glued to the show, and when he began to blow he found that his clarinet was not in them. A rather different kind of event was a performance at the "Orphan's Club" in a small village outside Hamilton. I don't know why it has this name, but in fact it was like something out of last century -- most of the audience having been born then -- with chains of office, ceremonial introductions, delicate slices of cheese and small glasses of beer, in an old village hall dated 1908 and apparently not touched since.

Now, you probably want to hear about the animals. Last year we reported two calves, Leah and Winnie. Leah was sold in March, as mentioned above, to fund Nikki's birthday celebrations. Winnie became quite a pet. The problem with cattle is that they eat a lot of grass and you have to consider how to "winter them over," because grass doesn't grow much in the winter. We got some hay in -- we should tell you about how we brought a few bales in to the Department tearoom for our Calgary Stampede brunch in July and all the kids played on them and we had to spend the next weeks vacuuming -- but most of the time we just staked Winnie out on the front lawn in the morning and brought her back into the paddock, where the water trough is, in the evening. It became quite a ritual. It's nice to walk your cow out in the morning and tether her up to a handy tree for the day, then take her in again when you get home from work. It's a pleasant, rustic, earthy sort of feeling (and comes with an earthy sort of smell, or worse, the chain having been dragging around in the dung all day). Winnie grew bigger and bigger, and heavier and heavier, and became a rambunctious teenager instead of, or perhaps on the way to, growing up into a placid and mature beast. She broke the chain a few times -- on one occasion Pam and Ian arrived home in the wee hours after a party, and Ian went out to put the cow in only to find she wasn't there; Pam joined in the search and we were soon to be heard wandering up and down our road, calling plaintively, and slightly tipsily, to our cow. Of course this street is full of cows and it was not so easy to find ours in the dark. And having recently seen Jurassic Park our senses were tingling. Anyway, we sold Winnie recently, and encountered an unexpected problem. She had grown! -- and although when she came to us she was simply lifted out of the back of a truck, that was no longer possible. We don't have a "loading race" -- a kind of ramp for loading cattle into trucks. The problem was solved by selling her to a neighbour and walking her down the street. Since Nikki had done more than her fair share of mixing milk powder for the calf as a baby, and bullying and cajoling her as a yearling, she got a share of the proceeds, which helped to ease the pain of parting.

We sold several lambs, also to a neighbour, around March. Caesar, our original ram, had a lovely curly fleece that now adorns our hearth. Pam and a friend cured it and made it into a rug, a long smelly job but the result is rather nice. Dopey, the replacement, became just too aggressive and had to go himself. We sometimes think that poor old Caesar was a little hard done by, being (we now realise) a marvellously docile ram who was replaced because of suspicions (false, as it turned out) of infertility, and butchered because of accusations (false, as it turned out) of aggressiveness. Dopey is now sausages; we collected him yesterday and you get a lot of sausages out of a ram. We're thinking of giving them as Christmas presents. We lent Dopey to the next-door neighbour last March, thereby becoming stud farmers; we also put our ewes in with the neighbour's, trading grass for sperm as it were. Their ram had knocked down some of their fences, so they ate him. For a long time it looked like Dopey was not performing (what are your responsibilities in this situation? -- the payment, the grass, had already been eaten). But in fact the neighbour's ewes had a record crop of twins, although our own three ewes didn't do so well, having just one each (one of whom died of tetanus). Pam got a handsome wooden shepherd's crook during the year and of course we had to practice with it; hordes of noisy people running round poking sticks at ewes may not be good for their maternal instincts. So now our flock is at an all-time low, three ewes and two lambs. We probably have a lot to learn about sheep reproduction and farm management.

In February Pam acquired on loan a year-old golden Labrador, Tanzi. A few months later she (the dog, that is) succumbed to the charms of an unknown admirer and in due course produced 11 puppies. Pam took most of these to the vet, keeping four until they were a couple of months old. One of these went to the Cleary family, friends from Calgary who have recently come home to New Zealand. We are now back to one dog -- more than enough for Ian -- and she's helping to keep Pam fit by taking her on walks twice a day.

And the final news. We're returning to Calgary for a prolonged visit. It seems like a good idea to return and see how our feelings have settled down. Ian has been back twice and is pretty sure he knows what he thinks, but the family hasn't. So Ian goes very early in January to start teaching there. Early in February, when term begins here, Pam will leave the girls in school and come over. School holidays begin in May and the kids will come over for the 3- week holiday and a little more besides. During February, March and April they are "private boarding" with families who have children who go to the same school. We hoped to put them into regular boarding at school, but they had no room there (much to our annoyance). But the families they're boarding with are really nice, and seem to suit their personalities. Nikki's is homey, with lots of animals and kids squeezed into a warm, friendly, and chaotic little cottage. Anna will be living in a huge and gorgeous house with a million dollar view. Both places are within a couple of miles from each other -- easy cycling distance -- and overlook Lake Karapiro, where Anna will be rowing most days after school. The girls will get the same bus to school.

So the big question is, how will we all feel to be back visiting Calgary again? It's an interesting situation, maybe an explosive one. Stay tuned for next year's episode -- or come and see us in Calgary during the first half of the year (Department of Computer Science, University of Calgary, Calgary, Canada T2N 1N4), Hamilton in the second.

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

Pam, Ian, Anna, and Nikki