Cleverness is something that rubs off…


I will clarify firstly that although the title is true, it doesn’t relate to me in that even being surrounded by a host of clever people, I am still as daft as a brush and in the ‘thick as a brick’ category, I am the odds on favourite to win. The children coming home with gold stars, ‘A’ pluses in their SATS and shining in their Spelling Bees gives me pride but I look at their maths homework like they ask, then cloud over after a few seconds before making my excuses and disappearing off to the far less challenging subject of finding a lightbulb to change. No, their cleverness hasn’t rubbed off onto me. It has however, rubbed off onto one of the family pets though, the mouse of all things.

We took a long vacation over the summer and on our return, having collected all the animals, my son sets about giving them all a cuddle. The mouse, she got some extra special attention and gets to play in my sons overgrown locks of hair. All fun and lovey. All smiles and giggles. Then the mouse leaps onto the sofa, off the sofa onto my daughter’s lap, off her lap onto the floor and under the sofa. That’s the last anyone has seen of her for the past four months. Since taking up residence in the sofa I have dutifully left out food and water for her and spent hours fruitlessly constructing a myriad of humane devices in an attempt to catch her. But it seems my efforts have been wasted as she manages to outwit each and every trap I set. Each morning I check the trap and each morning the bait has gone. Trap one was a bucket. A ramp led up the bucket and over the top was a thin wooden dowel running through a cylinder that had a tasty grape glued on with some raspberry jam. The theory was simple, she climbs the ramp, walks onto the cylinder, the cylinder rotates around the dowel and she slips off into the bucket. Nope, it didn’t work. She managed to get the food though. So maybe she was managing to jump out of the bucket. Okay, the next version of the trap used a deeper bucket. Still a nope. The design went through various modifications, all failures as after three weeks of hunting it was always the same, empty trap, food gone.

The next design employed a counterbalanced bit of stiff cardboard with the bait perched on the end. Think of it like walking the plank but the plank is not fixed. So once your weight goes over the point of balance, into the bucket you fall. Even after numerous fine tuning and tweaking, the bait was gone but there was no trapped mouse.

So after a few weeks the family are finding this rather amusing and weirdly routing for the mouse. The clever ones sticking together it appears.

A complete rethink had me build a new trap. She obviously has the balancing skills of a squirrel so my next trap aimed to beat her through deception of a more cerebral kind and used a plastic water bottle with the top half hinged with a couple of cocktail sticks and some rubber bands. The lid was connected to a pin in the base by some string and on the end of the pin was a grape. She pulls the grape, this pulls the pin, the pin releases the string and the rubber bands snap the bottle closed. A+ in geography children, paa! Come here and check out the genius that is your daddy. The following morning the bait is gone. Version two used stronger bands and I trimmed the hinge a little so the whole device was more sensitive. Nope.

The wise here would simply suggest I purchase a proper humane trap and stop wasting so much effort. And that is exactly what my wiser better half did. Unlike me, she didn’t spend half her waking life working on trap designs and the other half in the garage building them. She just went onto Amazon and bought one. I reckon the plan was to give it to me for Christmas but seeing my frustrations made it became an early gift, partly to stop me feeling bad that a field mouse had managed to outsmart me I suspect. The design was good, a trapdoor actuated by a small bar the mouse would step on as it moved towards the bait. A fraction of the size of my traps and visually far exceeding my chunky, blu-tac, masking tape and glue efforts. But it didn’t work. She took the bait and the trapdoor was closed but it was empty of any rodent. The next day we knew she was just having a laugh with us, food was gone and this time the trapdoor was left opened. Like the scene from Spy Kids, she had stepped over all the lasers and simply walked in then walked off with the booty.

It will soon be five months now that she’s been teasing me. A clever mouse in a clever family where it would appear the only one with the brain the size of a rodent isn’t actually the rodent, it’s me. And to further rub salt into my wound of inadequacy, the light I changed now isn’t working. So when you suggest someone is so stupid they couldn’t even change a lightbulb. You’re referring to me.

Maslow got it wrong, he never considered the rise of the ‘all you can eat buffet’…


Years ago I remember my marketing professor introducing us to this chap who, he told us, took some time to look closely at people and their buying habits. This was before they became known as consumers and before anyone had worked out why they consume. Abraham Maslow was his name and he came up with this Hierarchy of Needs concept, suggesting that as one need is satisfied, the next need then needs sorting out. Seems a reasonable sort of assumption, once you’ve got the basics taken care of, you’ll be wanting to top it off with something else, a little luxury maybe. But back in Abe’s time, no one had come up with the idea of the Chinese Buffet.

My children, their friends and everyone else, judging by how busy and how many of these places there are, can’t get enough of them. Here’s why. You pay to enter then proceed to eat and drink as much as you wish. We don’t go too often, weekends when we do, as they don’t open till 8.30 which puts us way past the children’s school day bedtimes. So if they’ve behaved well all week, they earn a late pass and can choose between a late night movie or a family binge out at the Buffet. After accidentally letting them watch ‘Saw V’ for a few minutes my 11 year old now has a comfort blanket and sleeps with the light on, so movie night has no appeal whatsoever anymore meaning the buffet option is the predictable winner.

Now not to come over all Ebenezer Scrooge like, I see this family event as a bit of a challenge, rather like at the BBQ’s the school throws during the summer months where my sole aim is to consume and drink the equivalent of that terms school fees, at the Chinese Buffet, it’s the families obligation to aim to eat the cost of entry. So if the entry is 20 Euros per person, a chicken and chips supper cooked at home would come to say 4 Euros meaning we’d need to eat 5 of them each and, to then get the value I’m expecting, we’d need to each eat one more. Obviously 5 chicken and chip suppers is a bit silly, where’s the variety, but you get the gist. Our Buffet of choice has a wide choice, from most things that live in the oceans, most edible land animals and every food group known to man. There’s a chef who’ll fry it, grill it, boil it or bake it any way you like. You can go Asian, Mediterranean, British and all styles and flavours in between. For refreshment you have beer on tap, with and without alcohol, the entire Coca Cola portfolio, a choice of hot drinks and of course water. For dessert you can go mad with all manner of cakes, buns, ice-cream and sprinkles, yoghurts, fruits and my favourite, spray on whipped cream!!

With dates known a few days in advance, if all goes well and my little ones don’t end up on the naughty step, we have time to starve ourselves in preparation to ensure the objective of eating as much as we possibly can is achieved. I can offer some timely advice at this point to those keen to follow, advice which if learnt the hard way, like me, only ends in disappointment. Do not start your fasting too early as you will end up taking a snack, that snack will be something like a few bars of chocolate with a tasty caramel filling, more than a few generous handfuls of peanuts and a family sized bag of cheese and onion crisps. Nope, peak too early and you will not be able to eat anything like your 5 chicken and chip suppers. The trick is to begin fasting just a couple of days before and ask your good lady to hide or lock away sweets, chocolates and snacks leaving just some fruit and vegetables to nibble on.

The Buffet owners are well aware that people of my type are numerous and their business model is designed to ensure me and a boatload of capable eaters do not strip their margins. One way they achieve this is to set up shop in the equivalent of a warehouse, fill it with more seating than a football stadium and decorate it in the cheapest ways possible. Ambiance is not a word that pops up in their business plan, dining and experience are also absent. But those words aren’t in my head at all either, “I could eat a horse” and “let me in, I am starving” are though.

We take our table and draw straws to see who gets to mind the coats and bags (oddly always me), then everyone makes a bee-line for their starter of choice. My daughter comes back with a bucket full of muscles, my son comes back with one plate of fries, a plate piled high with noodles, 5 spring roles a side of stacked gherkins and a pile of king prawns. I wipe away a tear I am that proud. My better half, never sticking to the programme and refusing to join in what she calls ‘silly’ returns with a bowl of salad. If the truth be known, she doesn’t really like this type of place, her argument being that any establishment that takes away your plate but leaves your knife and fork is just not right. She comes along to keep us in line and acts as the designated driver.

Round 1 very much goes in our favour I think. A total entry cost of 53 Euros and, by my rough calculations, we’ve munched our way through 21 Euros worth so far. My daughter goes freestyle for her next round mixing a selection of coated fruit slices from the chocolate fountain, a plate of king prawns, sliced ham and some fries. My son puts a lump to the back of my throat, returning with a few large steaks, chunks of garlic bread, more prawns, more fries, a burger and some hot chillies. The good lady opts for some salmon, grilled with lemon and some rice. But not to worry, even without her active participation we have all but covered our costs by the end of our 4th collective visit to the food counters. Drink has been a major contributor to our success as I believe I am on my tenth large beer by now and my selfies are starting to attract stares and ‘tuts’ from fellow diners.

Fellow diners, that’s a odd term. Males usually, carrying multiple plates stacked to overflowing with food. I once saw one who must have had an entire ribcage on his plate, a whole lobster on another plate balanced on top and above that a medley of octopus leg looking things, in his other hand he held two plates of stacked fries with a cheese burger perched on each. If I had a pen and if he had had a free hand, I would have shook it and got an autograph. It’s the males again who seem to be constantly pouring beer from the tap whilst the women tend to gravitate towards the water cooler and the lighter, healthier choices. I have seen some monstrous eating from some women for sure, but on the whole, it is the men who do the heavy lifting.

By the end of the evening, the end being decided by a now fed up and embarrassed wife who’s been kindly stacking our plates and cups (seriously, they don’t have glasses, just wax paper cups) really gives us a feel for our accomplishments that evening. “Dad,” says my son, “I don’t think that pile of plates would fit in our dishwasher’. I agree, there is at least two machine full loads there, not even counting the plates they had to take away to give us room.

In three short hours we have consumed our entire entry fee and then some. I am happy, the bargain hunter in me has succeeded. But the rise and rise of these places worries me. Not only will they overtake the Burger King’s of the world as a way of instantly feeding the children, they’ll add to our obesity crisis, the fishing grounds will be all but wiped out, more forests will fall to make way for more grazing land and my beer belly will cast a wider shadow until seeing my feet becomes a memory. We are no longer just satisfying a need then moving to the next, Maslow was wrong. We are exploiting our needs, they can never be satisfied, we don’t know when to stop. A sad thought that haunted me as I was helped into a standing position by some guests who knew the score all too well. Sure we had beaten the buffet, but the cost was high physically. I had eaten my body weight, had drunk a barrel, maybe more, standing was a struggle, moving near, impossible.

However there is a positive. With no need to eat at all for the next few days, we have saved a small fortune. There’s no reason for the weekly shop which means no need to fire up our dishwasher for a bit. Now, where did she hide the snacks..?

The morning battle and why I no longer take part…

school run

Normal people seek out a car park. Normal people open their wallets, feed the machine, press the button and take a ticket. In our neck of the woods though, that’s not the way to go about things as everyone simply refuses having to pay to park, especially if they think they are only going to be 10 minutes. The local council doesn’t want to build any more car parks, it’s a wasted investment. See, build a free car park and you’ll never get your investment back, build a pay one and you’ll never get your investment back, don’t build one and you get to keep what you would have invested. Instead, the council used this ‘investment’ to promote itself and attract more tax paying businesses by offering them a money saving deal. Build your offices here and we’ll possibly, though probably not, enforce the health and safety regulations regarding how many toilets per person you need to provide, but we’ll certainly not enforce any regulations regarding how many car parking spaces you need to have. So build an office for 500 people, create maybe just 50 parking spots and let your remaining employees fend for themselves along with those who work in the other 100 office blocks that took advantage of the local council’s ill considered offering.

Throw in a few schools within this same built up commercial area, all pretty big ones with 400 to 500 pupils for each one. Site them on single lane roads, a few on a one way road and in the middle put two car parks, both free. Now, around here, a free car park is more attractive than a Supermodel on a nude beach and therefore more crowded than said beach. Let’s do the maths. Six schools, 500 pupils each, say 2 children per car, what’s that..? Around 1,500 cars dropping the kids off. Then add in the workforce, that’s another 2,000 cars give or take. A conservative guesstimate therefore gives us 3,500 cars, in a rush, all aiming for pretty much the same point at pretty much the same time. Add in that each of them is more important than anyone else so ‘giving way’ or leaving space for anyone is the job of the car behind, not them.

Two lane roads, some roundabouts, pedestrian crossings and a couple of residential rat runs. That pretty much lays out the landscape for you. Now add in a whole pile of drivers with the observation skills of a cricket bat, the temper of a rudely woken hibernating bear, no regard for traffic signs or speed limits and no idea what an indicator is for. Hold that image for a bit… Just as you’re convinced a Spanish driver can no longer completely shock you with their insane lack of driving ability, they show just how inept they really can be by, having arrived at their destination, parking.

In France they call it the ‘French kiss’. This describes the little touches their bumpers make to the cars parked in front and behind as they parallel park. In Spain it’s more like a ‘fist’. Along the same lines as the French only the space doesn’t have to be big enough for your car when you start the manoeuvre as it will be plenty big enough when you’ve finished. Rather than look over your shoulder to get a feel for distance, you wait until point of impact. Add in lack of clutch control with a heavy throttle foot and you can start to see why car repair businesses do well out here. I read a local magazine where the editor was recounting an afternoon sat in a Marbella café watching some chap park his car. He said the minor damage inflicted on the other car was just that, minor, so other Europeans should just relax a little and take the Spanish attitude towards parking, less stress. He may have a point. But I’d guess he doesn’t have a very nice, nor very expensive car and hasn’t considered why Spanish insurance is stratospheric.

Remember the car parks..?  two of them, both free, one with space for 200, the other with space for 100. Creative parking means a car park with 100 painted bays will fit 200 cars even allowing for those special people who take two bays by parking at a silly angle, so 400 cars are sorted. 3,100 to go. Street parking is all double or treble parked, no-parking zones are full, roundabouts are full and so are the pavements. Even the little park has been commandeered. What was once grass is now just mud and ruts, what were newly planted trees are now dead flattened sticks and what was once the pathway itself is now the entrance. A bit of a squash but everyone is in. At some point you’d have thought the Police would come along and do something, get people to show some consideration. They do turn up but what they do is just stand in the middle of the pedestrian crossing and stop traffic so those parked in the big car park can cross the road. Not issue tickets or have a bit of a chat to those parked badly or those blocking the exits, or blocking the pavements or double parked. No, they do the job of the ‘Lollypop Lady’. And even though the pedestrian crossing is traffic light controlled they just stand on the crossing furiously blowing their whistles, stopping cars with the flat of their hand when the light is red, waving everyone across when the little green man appears. Which I thought was the whole point of traffic lights anyway!  And the whistle they endlessly blow has no effect on the drivers, they’re sat in their tin boxes listening to music, it’s me and my ears that suffer being stood right next to them. And they have no effect at all, the traffic still does not flow, how can it when PC Plod has just whistled at a bus to move forwards onto the roundabout where it now has to stop which then blocks those crossing from the other side.

Look around and not surprisingly, you’ll find the Police car parked illegally on the pavement itself. If the Police don’t give a rats about where they park, just as long as it is close enough so they don’t have far to walk, and can’t be bothered to start handing out a few fines, why should anyone else worry. Heaven forbid if the police started doing their job and did a bit of towing and ticketing, the locals would kick up a fuss about the parking, the local council would hear about this and maybe, just maybe, the businesses and schools would be forced to contribute to the problem they are mostly responsible for. And pigs might fly. To take the absurdity of things further, the main car park has recently been developed into a residential home. We lose 200 parking spots and the development attracts another 100 cars to the morning jolly.

Me, I have retired from this daily battle. Instead I drive my troop close to the school then we get out and walk. It’s only a 2km stroll, takes less than 10 minutes, wakes us up, gives me some exercise and parking is easy. Okay it’s a pain in the rain and the cold is cold but I kind of enjoy it now. I enjoy watching the frustrated drivers peering ahead trying to see what the delay is, which of course is the same thing that delayed them yesterday, the day before yesterday and every day before that. I smile at the irony of the boxed-in parents angrily blowing their horns in the hope it will attract the attention of the now empty cars boxing them in when only yesterday, they were the one’s doing the boxing-in. And here’s the funny thing, on a normal day, walking is usually faster.