Witten's Christmas Letter for 1994

Tauwhare Road
New Zealand
November, 1994


It's late to be starting the Christmas letter. Too late -- if the Muse deserts us now, we're in real trouble. But as years pass by, life accelerates and it becomes harder and harder to pack everything in. Although this year has gone in a flash, we seem to have done plenty of things -- particularly travelling. Here goes.

A year ago, Pam and Ian cut loose and spent a few days on Great Barrier Island. No, not the Reef: that's Australia. The Island guards the magnificent Hauraki Gulf which spreads upwards, north and east from Auckland. The Gulf is home of 800 islands (so they say), of which Great Barrier is the largest. We flew there from the big city, walking across the tarmac to a group of little planes and jokingly pointing out the tiniest one to each other -- "that's ours." Well it was! Knees squashed against chest, heart in mouth, we sped out over the waves. Our destination was Pohutakawa Lodge, a tranquil place drenched in sunshine and birdsong, just outside the "town" of Tryphena. There are phones on Great Barrier, though only in the last couple of years, but no mains electricity -- they use generators by day and flashlights by night. There are roads, dirt ones, and the locals have ancient rattletraps of cars, but the way for visitors to travel is by thumb. We were in our element! Our first lift was from a guy who came from Toronto four years ago, sold everything up, made friends in a pub in Auckland on his first night in NZ with someone who invited him back to the Island, and hasn't left since. Met a local girl on the quay, married, now has three kids (or was it four? -- he didn't seem too sure), happiness and penury. We walked all day: up a beach, right from one end to the other, over the headland to the next beach, and so on. Beautiful soft silvery sand. Once we saw another couple in the distance -- "what are they doing on our beach?" Another day we hiked across the island over the highest point, Mount Hobson. A million dollar view! Above thickly wooded slopes, a breathtaking 360 degree panorama of islands set in a sparkling sea. Auckland and Rangitoto, its volcanic islet, the Poor Knights islands far to the north, south to the Coromandel Peninsula and Moehau which we had climbed a year before, south-east to the Mercury islands and, beyond them, the Aldermen. On the way down we passed by the remains of a couple of old kauri dams. Years ago, Great Barrier was raped of kauri trees by the British who wanted them for spars. They're straight, tall, strong ... and extremely heavy! To get them off the mountain through thick bush, they made dams, felled the trees into the valley below, let the water build up behind the dam, and opened it to swish the logs down the mountainside. It was the most gorgeous hike. We arrived at Port Fitzroy, the other town on the island, worn out, and tried to hitchhike back only to find that we had left it a bit late. Deposited in the back of beyond by our first ride, we walked for one hour ... then two ... without seeing a single vehicle. Then a motorbike zoomed by, going our way. Then a tractor. Then a car! -- but going the other way. Then another car! -- going our way!! -- which didn't stop!!! We were pretty desperate, totally exhausted, night falling, not a person or dwelling to be seen. Eventually we found a call box in the wilderness, reversed charges to the Pohutakawa, and they came and rescued us, home to a hot and delicious meal.

The other pre-Christmas event that must be mentioned is Ian's second annual cycle ride to Whangamata with his team from the Department, the ToURING MACHINES (after an invention of Alan Turing, the celebrated British wartime mathematician). One hundred and twenty-five km to the sea, the first 60% flat and boring, the remaining 70% mountainous, tortuous -- and torturous. To his enormous satisfaction he cut just over an hour (one hour!) off his previous year's time, bringing it to 5 hours and 40 minutes. We'll see what happens this year, though further record-breaking seems unlikely.

On Jan 2 the pilgrimage began: Ian left for Calgary. Things were pretty busy for him there; fortunately he was staying with friends who live near the university, and quickly became part of the Svoboda family. One reason life was busy was that he began teaching very soon after arriving, new courses too. Another was that he had just written an amazing book called Managing Gigabytes (van Nostrand), along with two colleagues. If you haven't already read it, rush down to W.H. Smith's and pick up your copy. It was published very quickly, just three months from submitting the final manuscript to pride of place in bookstores, and so there was an incredible amount to do in a very short time. A third was music: he resumed playing in the University Symphonic Band, took up lessons with his former teacher, and joined the Calgary Wind Orchestra, which mainly comprises people professionally involved in music. All the pieces were extremely modern (most of the composers mere children!) and very challenging indeed, making the Waikato Symphony Orchestra look like something from the dark ages.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Pam was preparing the house for tenants and coping with two largish kids. Not content with that, she found herself in charge of an entire rowing crew -- the school's under-17 novice girls, who had been selected for their ability to giggle continuously for 2000 metres. They were a lively bunch who got less lively as the week's rowing camp wore on, and Pam really enjoyed having them in the house.

Once school began, Nikki moved into "private boarding" while Anna moved into school, having got a place in the boarding house at the eleventh hour. Pam breathed a sigh of relief and headed out -- for Calgary. She spent her last weekend in Auckland playing with the recorder society and walking along the beaches watching the yachts bobbing up and down, and drinking coffee in sidewalk cafˇs. It was 25 degrees C when she left and -30 degrees C when she stepped off the plane. Ian had made arrangements for a suitable welcome, and the Northern Lights were playing a rippling symphony of eerie iridescence as she arrived at our temporary residence with the Svobodas. What a fabulous "home"-coming! After a warm reunion with her friends, Pam quickly fell back into the routine of a weekly squash game and several hours of music-making with some of the former Early Byrds.

Not long afterwards, following a crash course of ski acclimatization, a group of us trekked into Skoki Lodge, deep in the Rocky mountains. We started at Lake Louise downhill ski resort, already high up and snowbound. A four-wheel drive vehicle took us to one of the upper lodges. Then it's pack on back, skis on feet, and onwards and upwards through the trees to the tree line and beyond. Climbing over a pass into a white, wind-whipped wonderland the other side, civilization and the bustle of downhill skiers left behind in a different world. Lunch huddled out of the wind behind a boulder, in a snowdrift. Then across a frozen lake in utter silence, broken only by the swish of skis. Up another pass, higher this time, and gruelling. On top some of our party, addled perhaps by lack of oxygen, began to build an igloo. You need a "snow saw," a long, thin-bladed kind of ripsaw, with which you carve out huge rectangular blocks of packed snow, making simultaneously a hole below snow level and building-blocks for walls. Stack the blocks up -- but it's hard work, and we were already breathless with altitude. So we skied down the other side of this second pass, falling and laughing helplessly in the thick powdery snow. The others were expert, and tried to help us, but shortly everyone had done a "face-plant" and was covered in snow. The lodge was a welcome sight, picturesque in a little clearing, as we took off our snowy gear and hung it up by the huge stove. Pretty soon they brought out from the kitchen -- guess! -- yes, hot camembert cheese in phyllo pastry. For this is no primitive cabin but a luxury lodge, for which we had paid a king's ransom (though no-one's complaining: kings never had it like this). The next day Ian struck out for a day's trek with the group, while Pam decided to go with another couple and learn how to "telemark," a graceful, difficult, kind of controlled turn in deep snow on cross-country skis. After much exhausting climbing up and falling down, she confessed that she was too old to learn new tricks like this, whereupon the other couple, who are experts, confided that they began telemarking ten years ago when they turned sixty! It was with extreme reluctance that we eventually took our leave of this haven in the wintry mountains, vowing to come back soon, and began the long journey over two passes back to the seething masses at the ski resort.

But after a brief sojourn in Calgary, the travel bug bit once more and Pam was off to England to celebrate her parents' birthdays in early March. She had a great time there. It was early spring and the countryside was just waking up -- a hint of soft, misty green on the trees and hedgerows, and primroses by the roadsides. Seeing her family was top priority, and together there were pub lunches, plays, concerts, visiting stately homes and wineries, shopping, and hours of walking along public footpaths through farmland and woods. It was a long time since she'd been back by herself: once her parents got over the shock of her arrival -- for she turned up without any advance warning -- she was treated like royalty and loved every minute of it!

No sooner had she arrived back than we both took off to Snowbird, a skiing village outside Salt Lake City, Ian for a conference and Pam for a whole week of fabulous downhill skiing in deep snow and blue skies. Snowbird is the mecca of downhill skiers; one of the meccas at least. There's a hot tub on the roof where you can sit outside, gazing over the snow- covered slopes, with just your head above steaming water in the falling snow and order iced strawberry daiquiris. This is the life!

Back to Calgary and now it was Ian's turn to be off, to New Zealand of all places! At the end of April it was time to go and pick up the kids. It had been very nice in Calgary with just the two of us. We did eventually get our own apartment, a sterile box (but a very nice one) just off the trans-Canada highway where we could feel the throbbing pulse of the nation as it swept past our balcony. No snow to shovel, no grass to mow, no reason to stay home. There was a pub just around the corner, cappuccino bars galore, and -- hey! -- we know the good restaurants in this town. Oh, and we had a car: imagine a tennis court, wheels at all four corners. Like a ship (we called it the Titanic) with two enormous doors, a red plush interior, a huge engine with dozens of cylinders, and an "Italian stallion" bumper sticker courtesy of the previous owner. A real gas guzzler, leaping majestically at the slightest touch on the accelerator. Electric windows! -- luxury beyond our wildest dreams. But reality intervenes at the end of every dream, and -- all right, let's admit it -- we missed the kids. After the initial excitement of being away from home, neither girl was having a very good time. Nikki found it strange with a different family, different habits and different tensions, and for Anna school was a totalitarian state where phones are tapped and your bedroom ransacked by the thought police while you were out. Home, it seems, was not so bad after all, and parents do have a role to play in their children's lives.

Well it was nice to get back to New Zealand. Ian was here for a week, a pretty hectic one at that, for he's in charge of a large research project at Waikato that had been neglected and needed some stimulation. We had let our house to a new staff member in the Department, who arrived a week before Pam left -- so she had met him, though Ian hadn't -- and whose wife arrived later. They sublet the sleepout to another new staff member. Ian had arranged to stay with them, and it was an slightly surreal experience as the guest of strangers in our own home! Of course, it was lovely to see the kids again. They got out of prison and came to stay for the weekend and we had a great time, just hanging out together. After an exhausting week's work it was up to Auckland airport for the long flight back to Calgary.

The kids re-acclimatized to North America in San Francisco airport. It was like arriving from another planet, as they explored the stores and marvelled at all the amazing wares on sale. In Calgary, they hit the ground running. To the airport Pam had brought one friend to greet each of the girls. Nikki's best friend of yore, sweet, conservative little Eli, turned up with purple hair, a nose-ring, and the grunge look -- just a regular North American teenager, but somewhat awesome from Nikki's perspective. Despite the long journey -- our low-cost deal involved a gruesome trip stopping at LA, San Francisco, and (wait for it) Spokane -- on the way back to our apartment the kids insisted on visiting Tim Horton's for that rare delicacy, unknown in New Zealand, an "American" doughnut. Tim Horton had a field day for the next five weeks, as did Dairy Queen, Phil's icecream store, Phil's (the other Phil) steak house, and the cinnamon bun shop.

Pam had cleverly arranged for both girls to go to school three days a week for the first three weeks. They were each in the class they would have been in had we remained there, with their former peers, though in both cases this was at a different school. We arrived late on Saturday night, and the first day at school was not supposed to be until Tuesday, but Anna was up with the larks at daybreak on Monday morning, raring to go. She had a ball. At the end of the first day she arrived home completely exhausted; she had never talked so much in all her life. She ended up going to school the whole time, all the time. It was a social occasion -- very little learning or studying seemed to be involved; life was one long free period. All the time she wasn't at school or out with friends, she was on the phone. She graciously agreed to accompany us for a couple of the weekends, but the rest of the time she was out. At the end of her stay she said she had never had such a good holiday! Several friends came to see her off at the airport as we flew out early one morning, but we learned later that they were all new friends; she had known none of them on arriving in Calgary.

Nikki, with her more reclusive nature, found the adjustment to fast, modern, city life more difficult. She has always loved her home and she missed New Zealand and her life here. One of her best friends had moved out of Calgary, the others had changed a lot, and our unfurnished apartment was rather bleak and spartan. Nikki loves the country and is relatively impervious to city charms. She enjoyed visiting Calgary, but the time was long enough for her and she was glad to be going home.

Just before departing, Pam and Ian went to see Scott. Pam had contacted his foster parents when we first arrived, but they were not overly keen for us to get together with him. Things had not been going well for him at school or at home, and he still reminisced nostalgically about his former life with the Wittens where everything was (apparently) rosy and he was (apparently) allowed to do exactly as he pleased, and dreamed of the day when they would swoop back from New Zealand and rescue him from his terrible fate. Moreover, Ian's visit two years earlier had apparently disturbed him for quite some time afterwards (we didn't know this). Pam talked to his social worker too, and it was decided to meet shortly before we left to confirm to him for once and for all that there was no chance of rescue and he had better settle down to life as it was. It sounded like another of those ghastly tense and stilted sessions between parents, child and social worker, and Anna and Nikki opted not to come. But as it turned out we had a very pleasant hour's visit, despite feeling rather choked, although Scott was reticent as always and we didn't really learn much about his life. He is huge, tall and skinny, but although his body has grown his manner and way of thinking has not really developed, and the gap between physical and mental maturity is beginning to seem incongruous. He is starting to have the kinds of problems that we had been warned to expect if he continued to live with us, and we had to admit that his foster parents, who have been specially trained and have special support from Social Services, are better equipped to care for him than we would have been.

We left Calgary for Disneyland. To be honest, we were a little concerned about how the girls would view our departure from the place where they grew up, and Disneyland was a lure. We all had a great time. The girls couldn't believe the endless urban sprawl as we drove to Anaheim from LA airport, but were in seventh heaven as soon as they discovered all the channels on our motel TV. Disneyland is really amazing. We went on most of the rides and Anna held Ian's hand on all the big ones. Two days was about the right duration: we felt we had done pretty well everything we wanted to. On the second evening Pam and Ian returned to watch the spectacular sound, fire, water and light show again, but Anna and Nikki had had enough -- they veged out in front of the TV. On the third day we took a bus trip to Venice Beach, through Hollywood and Beverley Hills with lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe, and watched a fire-eater harangue a delighted crowd as the cops stood by warily. That, it turned out, was the day of the O.J. Simpson car "chase," of which we remained blissfully ignorant.

After Disneyland the family split up again, Pam and the girls back to New Zealand, and Ian to a conference in Texas. He stopped briefly in San Jose and had an adventure there! The friend he was visiting took him for a trip in Monterey Bay on his new (second-hand) yacht, and once they were well clear of the marina the engine started playing up. Unfortunately, the friend had not owned the boat long enough to check the gear or try the sails, and it turned out that there were no paddles, anchor, lifejackets, and so on. Soon the engine cut completely -- out of gas! -- and they drifted away in the offshore breeze, contemplating whatever it is that lies west of the California coast. So ... up with the sails for the first time ever, and Ian saved the day with a tricky beat dead to windward in an unknown boat up a narrow and rocky channel to the marina. Adrenalin flowed like water.

And then from the sublime to the ridiculous. College Station, Texas, was a real eye- opener. It's ultra-conservative, the buckle of the bible belt. A university of 40,000 students, all scrubbed pink and clean shaven; not one nose-ring or head of purple hair to be seen. No bars. Iced tea was the only drink at the conference banquet. And it was hot, and muggy -- what a relief to get out. While on the subject of conferences, he had another trip earlier on, from Calgary to a conference in Newark, New Jersey. It was like arriving in hell! The frenetic, inhuman, East Coast atmosphere began immediately upon setting foot in the airport, jam packed, everyone late, rushing around, bumping and swearing. The traffic jam outside the airport was immense, cops with blaring public-address systems targeting triple-parked drivers. The taxi lineup was ghastly, drivers arguing heatedly with the dispatch girl as customers jostled past each other to claim a cab. It was raining, and the air was thick with grime. If this is civilization, give me the boondocks any day. There was no room at the hotel! -- "but the room was guaranteed for late arrival" -- "yes, sir, you do have a room sir, it's just that it's not available right now sir. No, we don't know when it will be. Sir." But the conference dinner was in Times Square New York , elegant drinks on the 27th floor, elegant meal on the 28th, which was some compensation and made occasional civilization look a little more acceptable.

So, you ask, how did it feel to return to New Zealand? Well, Ian liked it. Nikki loved it. Although she had a stupendously social time in Calgary, Anna -- surprisingly -- seemed much more at peace with the idea of being back than anyone expected; she doesn't pine for Calgary at all and quite seldom talks about it now. Even Pam, less settled here than anyone, certainly appreciated being back in our country residence, with real furniture and a garden, after camping in a bare apartment for so many months. For her it was the end of a great, extended, holiday.

Although her employer had said she would hold open her job, in the event the shop shut down so the job disappeared, much to Pam's disappointment. But the day after arriving back and learning this, there was a phone call out of the blue from someone in another shop with whom Pam had left a card two years previously! So she landed a job, again half time, now in a toy store. But it doesn't suit her; she seems to have grown out of toys and parents often use the shop as a dumping ground for kids while they go and try on clothes next door. Unfortunately, other employment prospects do not look good.

You're probably wondering about the livestock situation. We still have sheep, despite the fact that "someone" left the paddock gate open and Pam came home from work to find her just-about-to-bloom roses stripped to bare twigs. After a lot of unladylike language she and the roses have now recovered, and the sheep lived (just) to see another day. Meanwhile Pam has gone in for hanging baskets. We had six lambs this August, two sets of twins and two singles. Unfortunately they were conceived in blatantly incestuous relationships. Our plan to have our neighbour's ram impregnate our ewes went awry because we had failed to neutralize one of last year's little boys, and he ended up being this year's dad. The sixth lamb had a difficult and slightly gruesome birth. (Squeamish? -- skip this bit.) One evening, Nikki noticed its mother racing round the paddock with a lamb's head bobbing up and down at her rear end. Why do these things always happen just before dinner parties? Pam was cooking up a storm, guests were expected shortly, Nikki was out in the paddock wrestling down the ewe, and Ian was inexpertly trying to help it through a troublesome birth without getting blood on his best trousers. "For God's sake come and mash the spuds!" "Can't, I'm delivering a lamb." Oh, the rustic life. By this time he was just trying to save the ewe, for the lamb was obviously quite dead. Fortunately our neighbour stepped into the breach once more. To our astonishment, once it had been swung violently by its feet to clear the passages of mucus and after some vigourous heart massage, the lamb was miraculously alive. Sadly, although it thrived and grew for the first few days, it caught pneumonia one night and passed away the next day. A short and tragic life. So we have only five lambs, and five sheep -- some of which are destined for the freezer very soon. Nikki bought herself a calf this year from a friend. Rata is lovely and is still bottle-fed twice a day, though only with water -- not because she needs it but because we enjoy it. She's very friendly and follows us like a shadow, stepping on our heels and sucking shoulders, elbows, and jacket hems.

While were away Tanzi, Pam's labrador, was staying at her breeders and had a litter of twelve puppies shortly before we arrived back. They all survived without any supplementary feeding. Having had 23 puppies in two litters Pam decided to have her spayed so now she's "safe." One of the last litter recently won "Best Puppy" at the Christchurch dog show.

Now the music news. Pam has started a small recorder group, and has been appointed president of the Hamilton Recorder Society next year. She bit the bullet and began taking lessons once a month in Auckland, which she combines with the monthly meetings of the (much larger) Auckland Recorder Society. Ian regained the second clarinet chair in the Waikato Symphony Orchestra just as soon as he got back -- rather mundane music, unfortunately, compared to what he had been playing in Calgary. The clarinet group (currently a quintet) continues, and he has been arranging some music for it. In fact, he spent a hot Sunday in College Station, Texas, arranging his mum's favourite, little-known, Irish folksong, and sent a recording of it by the group for her birthday. In September he found himself playing at the banquet of the NZ computer science conference in Christchurch. Tim Bell, with whom he has had a long association (they write books together), has a rock/jazz/ classical/you-name-it group that was engaged for the occasion, and Ian practiced with them and played quite a few tunes -- it was a great success. He