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Friday, November 29, 2013

There's nothing more terrifying than a thug in a hoodie coming towards you down a dimly lit alleyway...

Although when he keeps doing impressions of The Fonz, it does takes the edge off the terror.

Anyhoo, that's Toby showing off his fancy footwork in the hallway this evening by walking on his hind legs. Which is a phrase Lisa used the other day. The encouragement comes courtesy of Amelie, who's been even more trying than usual today...

I'm not sure why the symbol of a 'nice job' is the see-no-evil monkey, but it's a church school, so they're clearly big on holy primates. The fact remains, however, that while Toby's been stringing a few steps together, Amelie's been joining up her writing. Or at least trying hard to do so. They're both such high achievers. Give them a few months and they'll be sprinting and churning out novels.

On the subject of Amelie's educational achievements, she's had a couple of rehearsals this week for next month's nativity, and whilst the rest of the class appear to be playing houses, oceans and mountains (Faith gives a moving performance in that role), Amelie's being pushed to the very limits of her thespian endurance. She's currently complaining that her arms are aching from holding the baby Jesus. He's clearly a strapping lad, and she needs God to give her strength. Or possibly a buggy.

Anyhoo, all of that aside, the biggest news of the day is that Lisa and I have now been together for exactly 9½ years. So another six months, and we'll be eligible for parole. By happy coincidence, I've taken Monday off work so that we can celebrate with a long weekend and a meal/concert combo on Sunday. It's officially my birthday present from Lisa, but I'd rather focus on our relationship than my age, so I'm letting her share it with me. And frankly I can't wait. It's been a decade to remember, and I love her very, very much.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Aside from a headache, a nervous twitch, significant grief and the willies, the one thing Amelie has given me over the past year is an appreciation of fine art. Mostly her own. She spends a great deal of her time drawing, and in the past twelve months, she's improved to such an extent that most of the time I can actually tell what her pictures are. Although anyone who saw the flamingo she drew yesterday might want to question that statement.

Unfortunately, her artwork is now becoming so complex that although I can recognise individual aspects of the drawing, the picture as a whole requires a certain amount of explanation and interpretation. Take this charming little scene for example...

Now, you might think that's a lovely drawing of me juggling an ice cream while Lisa picks some flowers and Amelie has a nice lie-down. But apparently not. I've spoken at length to the artist, and she informs that me that it's actually...

... a picture of death. No, really. Apparently the girl in the middle has died, and the woman on the right is laying flowers on her grave. I'm not sure if the bloke on the left is playing table tennis, preparing a death mask, or about to bludgeon the girl with a club, but whatever the true meaning, it's clearly a picture I'll be able to discuss with Am's therapist in a few year's time.

Interestingly, you'll notice that the bereaved family don't seem unduly grief-stricken by the death of their loved one, while the girl has clearly found a level of peace which borders on ecstacy. And the reason for that happiness is shown in Amelie's follow-up drawing...

That's the dead girl in heaven with Jesus. Who appears to have lost all his hair, but is sporting a very fetching goatee. And they're on a cloud, not a giant blancmange.

So one term at a faith school has already changed Amelie's outlook on life. Or, more specifically, death. Apparently it's not something to be feared, but can be quite a joyful experience. Which is probably what motivates most serial killers.

Anyhoo, having talked me through that set of powerful religious imagery, Amelie then asked me this question:

"Daddy, do people know when they're going to die?"

I explained that no, in general, people don't know the exact date of their own death, although they might feel a certain sense of doom if they're about to board a plane with my sister. Amelie considered that information carefully, then added:

"Well, if you like, you can take that picture into work with you. Then, if any of your colleagues know they're going to die tomorrow, you can show it to them, and it will make them feel much better."

I'm not sure if that's charming, heart-breaking or just downright disturbing. But I'll send out an e-mail in the morning just on the off chance.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Well, in the words of Haley Joel Osment, "I see dead people". Although in this case, it's the Asda delivery man. Just when I was beginning to think he didn't exist, a nice chap from Asda turned up at 8 o'clock last night with a trolley load of groceries. I didn't know whether to kiss him or punch him. My wife feels the same about me sometimes.

Lisa had phoned the store manager at lunchtime, who assured us the order would be arriving that evening, and promised us 50% off the bill. Which made me wish I'd ordered more. We haven't actually received that refund yet, so I'll believe it when I see it, but if it does materialise, then I suppose that's a reasonable end to the story. Asda haven't exactly inspired me with their ability to sort out a problem, and a half-price delivery doesn't quite make four days of frustration worthwhile, but it's enough to placate me for now.

To be honest though, we were lucky to get the order at all yesterday. I'd paid for it with my credit card this time, and with immaculate timing, I had a phone call from Barclaycard at 10am yesterday, to say they'd put a temporary stop on my card due to suspicious transactions. Apparently I lead such a dull, predictable life, that the moment I shop in three different towns, the fraud squad swing into action.

Personally I blame the kids. Amelie also likes to swing into action, but in her case it's with a Wii controller, so whilst in Haywards Heath last Wednesday, I bought her a couple of second-hand games. Unfortunately, I generally only use my credit card for paying bills, taxes and debts to society, so the moment Barclaycard spotted me having fun, they put my card on high alert. It meant that when I turned up in Hastings three days later and bought a pair of shoes, they knew there was something wrong. Clearly my card had been stolen by someone with too much leisure time and an impulsive love of footwear. It's a miracle they didn't arrest Lisa.

In reality, I'd spent my hard earned credit on these...

That's Toby standing on his own two feet in the Hastings branch of Clarks. After months of creeping and crawling, he's made great strides in the past few days, and is now spending a lot of time casually strolling around the flat as if he owns the place. So we thought it was about time he had a pair of shoes.

I think the standard of Clarks' photography has improved slightly since they snapped Lisa's cleavage four years ago. This time you can barely see my man boobs. Toby looks less like a zombie too. His sister had size 5H feet at this age, whereas he's only 4½G, so while she was an elephant, he's more of a pygmy hippo.

Unfortunately the one thing which hasn't improved over time is Clarks' prices. Frankly I think the main reason Barclaycard queried the purchase is because they couldn't believe anyone could spend that much in a shoe shop. Pound for pound, I think they're more expensive than gold.

So the result of all that is twofold: Toby will be wearing those shoes until he's three, and from now on, we're only shopping in Lidl.

Monday, November 25, 2013

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking "Phil, Asda might have delivered nothing but shoddy treatment and poor customer service for more than 72 hours, but now that your three-day passage to India is finally over, and you've reluctantly accepted your rescheduled Sunday evening grocery order, how does it feel to finally have your shopping?"

Well I wouldn't know. Because it still isn't here. In fact, I'm beginning to think the Asda delivery man is a bit like Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense.

We stayed at my parents' on Saturday night to celebrate my Dad's birthday yesterday, and with the shopping rebooked for 7-9pm, we were planning to leave there around mid afternoon, coast back along the coast road, and then feast on three-day-old groceries. Unfortunately that all changed at about 11am. I was just getting into my car to take Amelie to the nearest branch of Poundstretcher, when my mobile bleeped. It was a text message from Asda. And it said this:

"Delivery order XXXXXXX8675 has been cancelled due to your payment being declined. Please call us by 10:30pm to rebook for a different day."

Funnily enough, I didn't wait until 10:30pm. To Amelie's displeasure, I marched straight back into the house and phoned India there and then. To cut a long, angry and frustrating story short, the explanation is this:

Asda don't authorise your payment card until the day of your delivery, just before they pick your order. I paid for our original order with my debit card, which had about £200 of available funds on it. Our order was for about £115.

Asda took that payment on Thursday, when the order was supposed to be delivered. Obviously it wasn't delivered, but they didn't cancel it until Friday evening when the shopping was rebooked. And by Sunday they still hadn't processed that refund.

So on Sunday morning, they attempted to charge my debit card again for the 'new' order (which was actually the same order rebooked), but having failed to refund my money from the order they hadn't bothered to deliver, there wasn't enough money in the account to cover it. So the payment failed.

In addition to that debit card, I have a credit card registered on my Asda account, so you'd think that if the first card fails, they might use the second one. At the very least, you'd expect them to phone and ask what I want them to do. But no. If the first card fails, they just cancel the order and send you a text.

I spoke to another lady in India, and like her seven predecessors, she was unable to do anything. Despite the entire situation being wholly their fault, she said there was no way they could deliver our shopping on Sunday. Once an order's been cancelled, it has to be rebooked, and the earliest that any order can be rebooked is the following day.

I pointed out, calmly, and with only slightly murderous intentions, that this order was already three days late, and had now been cancelled PRECISELY BECAUSE THEY'D CHARGED ME FOR AN ORDER I HADN'T RECEIVED, but apparently there was nothing she could do. And nothing her supervisor could do. Or their manager either. In fact, I suspect that had I asked everyone on the Indian subcontinent, I'd have failed to find anyone with enough power to act.

So they rebooked our order for this evening. And while I stomped off to Poundstretcher with Amelie, Lisa phoned the Brighton Marina branch of Asda and demanded to speak to the manager.

She doesn't work Sundays. But they said she'd phone us back in the morning.

She hasn't.

And it gets worse. When I called India on Friday night, the chap gave us a £10 e-voucher as some kind of compensation. That was knocked off our order when it was rebooked for Sunday. Unfortunately, when we got home last night, and I logged into my Asda account, I discovered that because they'd cancelled that order, the e-voucher had been cancelled along with it, and they were now charging us ten pounds more for exactly the same order.

You have to laugh. Unfortunately I can't.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Happy 75th Birthday, Dad!

I've checked the horoscope for people born today, and it says this:

"Being a Sagittarius born on November 24th, you are characterized by an adventurous, positive and straight forward nature. You live for new experiences and exciting situations, which explains why you are always searching for different environments to explore."

Although now he's entitled to a free TV licence, he's unlikely to leave the sofa.

His 75 years of adventuring have, however, produced three lovely grandchildren...

Well, one lovely grandchild and a couple of nutters. Amelie spent most of yesterday afternoon poking people in the face with a giant balloon, whilst claiming it was the Sword of Death, and shouting "Kill! Kill! Kill!". Which I presume is something she learnt at the Catholic school. Fortunately, it's occurred to me that if my brother's daughter seems perfectly normal, then the crazy gene must have come from Lisa's side of the family. Which is not only reassuring, but makes a lot of sense.

Anyhoo, Amelie woke me up at 7:15am yesterday morning by slapping me repeatedly on the forehead because she couldn't find the iPad. I'd already packed it, so that we could make a quick getaway that morning, and sure enough, we were out of the flat by 12:20pm, a mere five hours later. That's the beauty of forward planning.

Once at my parents' house, Amelie interrupted my Dad's celebratory mail-opening to show him what a real birthday card looks like...

It's made of cheap A4 paper, opens on the left, and is drawn entirely in pink felt-tip pen. Amelie's spotted a gap in the market that Hallmark have clearly missed.

For his birthday, my Dad received books by some of the greatest comedy writers of the past 75 years: Spike Milligan, Tommy Cooper and me. The first two were purchased by my brother from Amazon, while the third was created on the computer by yours truly last weekend, and then produced in limited edition hardback by one of Britain's most prestigious publishing houses: Funky Pigeon. They had a half-price offer on.

So having played with all the presents...

... we settled down to some celebratory fish & chips, followed by some hard partying and soft birthday cake...

That's Toby on the floor. He'd already drunk himself under the table at that point, and is pictured there two seconds before he attempted to set himself on fire by plunging his hand into the candles.

As for the cake, that was hand-decorated by Amelie. So it's a miracle there's anything on it.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

At 8:45pm last night, I decided to make our seventh call to the Indian branch of Asda customer services. Despite having had three hours to dial the number, the lady from the Brighton Marina branch didn't appear to have phoned them at all. Unless they've all gone down with amnesia. So I'm beginning to think she was some kind of charlatan, or possibly a passing customer who picked up the phone and was winding us up. I have visions of all the staff down at our local Asda hiding behind the deli counter every time the phone rings, and pretending there's nobody in.

Fortunately, the man I spoke to in India was very nice, and told me that he won't rest until we get some answers. Although he was about to go home for the day, so he said we'd have to wait until today. In the meantime he gave us £10 (which is not quite as "significant" as I'd imagined) and agreed to rebook our order. Unfortunately they couldn't do Saturday morning as requested, so it's rescheduled for Sunday evening. Which will make it just over three days late.

The chap told me that he starts work today at 1:30pm and that he would personally find out what's been happening and call us back. Unfortunately we're going to be out this afternoon. But let's face it, they've promised to call us about a dozen times, and so far, the phone call score is 8-1 in our favour. So I don't think we'll miss much.

As it happens, we're heading over to my parents' house for the weekend. If he can last another day, my Dad will reach the significant milestone of three-quarters-of-a-century tomorrow, so we're giving him the gift of our presence. Our actual gift is much cheaper.

In the meantime, here's a short public information film which explains why our day out in Milton Keynes earlier this month didn't start until 2pm, and why we're unlikely to be sharing lunch today with my parents...

We'll still arrive before our shopping though.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Today marked the end of National Anti-Bullying Week (I didn't find that link myself, I forced a geeky kid to let me copy it), so to mark the occasion, everyone at Amelie's school had to go in wearing something blue. Presumably to represent the sadness of the persecuted child. Or maybe so that the teachers could all wear jeans.

Either way, the timing was very appropriate as I currently feel like smashing someone's face into the pavement and demanding that they give me all their money. Although in my case, the person is Asda. And I don't want all their money. I just want enough to compensate me for the twenty-four hours I've spent on the phone to India, trying to find out where my shopping is.

I ordered all our groceries online this week, and booked it to be delivered from Asda yesterday evening between 6pm and 8pm. Having collected Lisa and the kids from her Mum's on my way back from Burgess Hill, we got home at 5:45pm, and were in all evening.

By 8pm, the shopping hadn't arrived, and we'd had no calls on the landline or my mobile. Fortunately, I'm a patient sort of person, so I gave them a bit of leeway, and waited until 8:45pm before phoning customer services and speaking to a very nice lady on the subcontinent. She informed me that our shopping was on the van, which was obviously good news. Unfortunately she didn't know where the van was. So she said she'd ask her supervisor for permission to phone the store.

I was put on hold for five minutes, which I spent pondering why Asda customer service assistants need permission to telephone a branch of Asda, but when the lady returned, she told me that she couldn't find any managers available, and therefore couldn't make the call. She did, however, inform me that my shopping should be somewhere between the Brighton Marina store and my flat. In return, I informed her that that's about a four minute drive and I could have done it in the time I'd been on hold, but she didn't have an answer for that. Instead she advised me to phone back in fifteen minutes.

I gave them twenty. And this time I spoke to a young Indian man who asked me if I was having a good day, and then put me on hold while he attempted to find a manager who could authorise a call to the store. To my surprise, he found one, and he then put me on hold again while he made the call. Ten minutes later he returned to tell me that he'd rung the number a dozen times and they weren't answering the phone. He advised me to phone back in the morning if the shopping hadn't arrived.

Needless to say, it hadn't. And neither had any kind of courtesy call. So I phoned Asda customer services at 8:15am this morning, and spoke to a third member of the Indian call centre team. She agreed that this was completely unacceptable, and said she'd give me a voucher for free delivery on my next order. I pointed out that I've already paid for three months worth of deliveries up front. She said "Oh...". And then offered me £5 instead.

In the meantime, she said she'd get onto the store immediately and tell them to phone us straight back. That was at 8:20am. I was expecting a call by eight-thirty. I took Amelie to school at 8:40. And at 11am, Lisa e-mailed me at work to say they still hadn't phoned us back.

By lunchtime we'd still heard nothing, so Lisa made the first of her three calls to India today. The people she spoke to told her that they'd phoned the Brighton Marina branch of Asda on numerous occasions, spoken to various people, and left messages for someone to call us, and they couldn't understand why no one had. Neither us, nor anyone in India had been given any reason for our shopping not being delivered, and they seemed powerless to do anything.

So at 5:45pm today, almost twenty-four hours after our chosen delivery time, and with Lisa on the verge of requiring blood pressure medication, she demanded that India give her the number of the Brighton store manager, so that we could ring him or her direct. They agreed, and Lisa got straight through.

The lady she spoke to denied all knowledge of any phone calls, and claimed that no one had asked her to call us. She also had no explanation as to why our shopping hadn't been delivered. Until, that is, she suddenly (and mysteriously) asked if she could phone us back for no apparent reason. When she did, ten minutes later, she'd managed to formulate a questionable story about the van driver getting a puncture. Lisa asked her why he hadn't phoned us on his mobile, but she didn't know. She couldn't explain why no one had subsequently phoned us either, but she did say that she thought the people in India should have done. Which was odd, as we'd spoken to six of them, and none of them knew anything about it. Although I suppose India's a big place, and they're probably all on their way to Mars.

Oddly, despite our shopping having been on the van when it got a puncture, no one seemed to know where it was now, and when Lisa asked when it will be delivered, the lady said it will have to be rebooked. So Lisa told her we want it tonight. She said it can't be today, and she can't rebook it herself - we have to do that via India. By this point, Lisa was on the verge of screaming, so she handed the phone to me.

I spoke to the lady and she assured me that the moment she'd finished talking to me, she would phone India and tell them to call me straight back to rebook the delivery. She would then sort out some "significant" compensation. I said "And they'll definitely call me this evening?". She said yes, it would be almost immediate.

That was just after 6pm. It's now 8:20pm and we've heard nothing. I don't know whether to make our seventh call to India, our second call to Brighton, or just phone Tesco and tell them we'll be shopping with them in future.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The big news of the day is that three patients have already wished me Happy Christmas, and yet no one's given me a present. Which makes those words seem pretty hollow.

But the advantage of a slow news day is that Amelie ends up appearing in the local paper. This photo is currently boosting sales of The Argus in newsagents across Sussex...

If you take out the three adults, she's the tallest one in the class. Although it's possible she was standing like this...

Either way, it's not surprising she looks down on people.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Monday marked the end of my third week as an online undergraduate, so having partied hard for six days, I had to hit the virtual books yesterday and complete the whole of week 3's studies in a day. You can't beat a bit of hands-on experience, so I felt that the best way to learn about diabetic hypertension was to raise my blood pressure by drinking a can of Red Bull and sailing dangerously close to the deadline.

By some miracle I succeeded, but despite scoring another 20/20 on the exam, the main thing I've learnt is that diabetologists are extremely tricky customers. Take this question for example:

Insulin is a hormone made by beta cells in the pancreas; insulin regulates carbohydrate and fat metabolism. Which of the following further describes insulin inaccurately?

1. There are four ways to categorize injectable insulin: rapid-acting, short-acting, intermediate-acting, and long-acting.
2. Recombinant DNA technology biosynthesizes or synthesizes human insulin by inserting the gene for insulin into yeast and diseased strains of E. coli.
3. Insulin has an A chain consisting of 21 amino acids, and a B chain consisting of 30 amino acids; these two chains are connected by disulfide bonds.
4. Insulin causes cells in the liver and skeletal muscle to absorb glucose, and causes fat cells to absorb lipids.
5. Insulin from pigs and cows are different from human insulin by one and three amino acids, respectively.

The first bit of sneaky business is to put the letters 'in' before the word 'accurately', but even once you've spotted those, I'd expect there to be one statement which is obviously false. Something along the lines of 'Insulin is mined from quarries and should be swallowed with a milkshake'.

But no. The correct answer is number 2. Because in reality, recombinant DNA technology biosynthesizes or synthesizes human insulin by inserting the gene for insulin into yeast and non-diseased strains of E. coli. Not that they're trying to catch you out at all.

As it happens, however, my ability to score drugs at university was overshadowed yesterday by Amelie's achievements at school. When I got home from work, I took her and Toby down to Lidl to show them how the other half live, and whilst walking along the road, I asked Amelie about her day. She told me various vital bits of information, such as what she had for lunch and what her friends thought of her new water bottle, before saying - casually, and as an afterthought - "Oh, and I know what part I'm playing in the Christmas play..."

Naturally I was expecting her starring role to be... well, a star. Or failing that, a sheep. But she proceeded to tell me that she's been selected for the part of Mary. Which is enough to make a heathen shout Hallelujah.

Personally I'm more of a wise man, which is why I tend to disbelieve anything Amelie tells me until it's proven to be true by at least three independent sources. But having interrogated her on the subject for a good half hour, employing the use of German sweets as a truth serum, I eventually took the girl at her word.

Lisa proved to be slightly less trusting, possibly because her nephew once announced that he'd been given the part of Joseph, only for his parents to turn up on opening night and find him dressed entirely in wool, with the crucial line of 'Baa'. But as luck would have it, Amelie's class had an 'open morning' today, so Lisa went straight in and demanded some answers. And the upshot of it all is...

It's true. The teacher has informed us that Amelie is very bright and confident, making her perfectly placed to give birth live on stage, in front of an invited audience. Lisa's particularly pleased, as she also played Mary in the school nativity, and it ranks as her finest educational achievement. Seriously, I've seen her exam results. To be honest, it was quite a big deal back then, as TV hadn't been invented, and it was the only form of entertainment at Christmas.

So I'm currently attempting to rearrange my work schedule so that I can witness the virgin birth. I also need to get Toby an agent. With his smart new haircut and holy sister, there's every chance we can hire him out as the Baby Jesus.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

I've had a sore throat since Wednesday, which I think is God's way of telling me to shut up and eat ice cream. I did manage to get a doctor's note on Thursday, but unfortunately it was a letter from an ophthalmologist telling me how great I am, so it's likely to result in more work, not less. On the plus side, however, Lisa and I watched 'On Benefits and Proud' this week, which demonstrated to me that the way out of this current spiral of exhaustion, poverty and complete lack of free-time is to get myself fired from my job. And then refuse to find another.

But while I'm working out the best way towards gross misconduct, the good news is that I've spent the last of my money on a haircut. Not for myself, obviously. Although I am tempted to go down the Wayne Rooney route and have a hair transplant. I've got plenty going spare in my ears. In fact, if it grows any longer, I could probably save myself some cash and have a comb-over.

In reality, the barnet that needed tackling was this one...

He's like King Kong with a mullet. Frankly he looks more like Fay Wray.

Toby was originally booked in at the barber's last Saturday, but we rescheduled in order to drive up to Cheshire (which isn't as far as Google Maps would have you believe). So by yesterday he was sporting the kind of locks that went out of fashion in the seventies, and urgently needed a date with a pair of scissors. I offered to have a go myself, but Lisa's witnessed my work with Chloe, who's lucky to still have two ears, and felt it was best left to the professionals. And besides, he's worth it.

As it transpired, he was a slightly reluctant customer...

But the stylist had three hands (one with a cereal bar), so she made light work of it, and the boy was soon back at the house, looking like a shorn sheep...

It's taken years off him. And as a bonus, he looks a lot like William Hague. Although that might just be the outfit.

Anyhoo, Amelie also had her hair done at the salon, but she's not one to pose for a photo...

Unless she sees my camera, in which case she strikes a pose faster than you can say paparazzi.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

It's just over a year now since I looked on the bright side of life and did something completely different by attempting a university course about Python. Although in reality I was flogging a dead parrot. Having started well, I became quite constricted by the Python workload, ran out of time to complete the projects, and promptly dropped out in week two.

I intended to try again with a second Coursera class in February, this one on 'Clinical Problem Solving', but tragically I failed to solve the problem of having too many clinics to do, and with work and home life closing in on me in a pincer movement, I never even started that one.

But fortunately, whilst I've singularly failed to learn anything from Coursera, the good news is that I've also learnt nothing from my mistakes. So I've signed up to do another course. This one's entitled 'Diabetes: Diagnosis, Treatment & Opportunities' (the main opportunity being to add another line to my CV), and it's offered by the University of California in San Francisco. It runs for five weeks, and gives me all the benefits of attending the university's Diabetes Teaching Center, without the risk of death by earthquake.

The course started on October 28th, and in a shock of epic proportions, I haven't dropped out yet. But only because I'm submitting my papers about ten minutes before the deadline. Each week features an exam with a pass mark of 70%, and they give you two weeks to complete the first one, presumably to delay the moment when you find out how badly you're doing, and ensure that no one gives up in week one. It means that the first two exams had to be submitted by 7:59pm on Monday of this week.

So rather than spend a fortnight carefully viewing all the lectures and reading the notes, I watched all of week one's lectures on Sunday, either side of a trip to Queens Park, and then listened to week two's lectures on Monday, whilst grading retinal images. I then completed both exams in the evening, by about 7:45pm.

And the results are in. I got 90% on the first one, and 100% on the second. I even got this question right...

Which of the following is true of the relationship between obesity and insulin resistance?

1. Obesity is not the main environmental factor for insulin resistance.

2. Weight loss surgery results in decreased insulin resistance.

3. Increased free fatty acid levels heighten skeletal muscle oxidation.

4. Fat stores release adipokines which influence insulin signalling pathways to reduce skeletal muscle glucose uptake.

... although not all of them were that obvious.

So with three weeks to go, and motivation levels at a high, I think I'm in with a fighting chance of completing this one. Although, in an ideal world, when I have a spare half hour in the evening, I ought to be doing my course, not writing about it. But still, there's always tomorrow...

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Sometimes, even the Laundry Fairy looks at our weekend washing with despair...

But fortunately, if he's overcome by the sheer enormity of the task, and faints under the oppressive weight of domestic drudgery, there's always a doctor in the house...

Although it's the same doctor who insisted on dressing him in wings and a fluffy tiara, so I'm not sure her judgement is always sound.

Anyhoo, the good news is that my gargantuan and entirely selfless efforts to treat my family to a once-in-a-lifetime day-trip-to-remember are clearly paying off big time. Having spent five hours in the car on Saturday, and driven Amelie through torrential rain, howling winds, biblical flooding and - worst of all - Dunstable, in an effort to show her what life is like north of Watford, and give her a taste of some rock-hard beef, she ran into school yesterday morning and exclaimed:

"Guess what I did at the weekend!"

When none of her classmates could (or cared), she continued:

"I went to Queens Park!"

Yes, it seems that a day out in Milton Pils pales into insignificance compared with the 45 minutes she spent with me in Queens Park on Sunday. Which is frustrating, as the park's about 130 miles nearer, and doesn't require petrol to get to. It does, however, feature a zip-wire, which is not something I witnessed in Buckinghamshire. I expect the council have it on their list of things to do, alongside the concrete cows gift shop and café.

Incidentally, since publishing Sunday's blog post, it's been pointed out to me that not all car parks in Milton Keynes are free, and that failing to pay & display on the grounds that you read it on some blog, is likely to result in a parking ticket. Fortunately, if you e-mail me, I can give you Jon & Steph's address. There are no restrictions on their street, and the bloke next door is quite happy for you to park outside his house.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

I've seen some hard-faced cows in my time, but you'd have to go a long way to beat these...

Yes, some men like to take their families to London, Paris or even New York for the weekend. I prefer to take mine on a day-trip to Milton Keynes...

I told Amelie we were going to EuroDisney, so there's just the slightest hint of mild disappointment on her face there, as she poses on a muddy verge at the side of a noisy dual carriageway, in front of some concrete cows. But hey, it wouldn't be a Gardner Family Fun Day without some tears. And rain. And a crushing sense of despair.

As it happens, the photo above was taken by a talented semi-professional photographer with more skill in her little finger than I have in my whole body. Although she doesn't have arthritis in hers, so she's at a distinct advantage. Unfortunately, she had to use my camera for that shot, which is a bit like asking Wayne Rooney to play football with a tin can. There aren't many professionals who buy their equipment in Argos. So she did well with what she had to work with.

Anyhoo, exactly one year ago today, I removed a girl's knickers in a public toilet and posed for some photos with a couple I'd never met before. And what's more, I enjoyed it so much, I decided we should do it annually. So yesterday, a mere 364 days after our last encounter, Lisa and I went swinging up to Milton Keynes to visit Jon & Steph Cheshire.

To be honest, we hadn't intended to leave it a year, but we're all busy people and I take a long time to reply to e-mails, so that's just how it worked out. It was worth the wait though. Jon & Steph are based in Bletchley, "Home of the Codebreakers", so I wasn't sure if they lived in a mansion house or a Nissen hut, but having driven around the M25 in torrential rain, been forced to stop at the services for sausage rolls, and then taken in the delights of Dunstable (which Amelie informed us was a much nicer place than Brighton), we eventually rolled up at the Cheshire residence to find that it was a delightful house in beautiful surroundings.

I wasn't permitted to photograph their street for legal reasons, but fortunately Amelie had my camera in the back of the car, and I don't think the law applies to five-year-olds, so here's a rain-soaked scene from Rear Window...

Interestingly, Amelie spent the day referring to the place as Milton Pils, which I think is a testament to the number of beer commercials she's seen.

Anyhoo, we were warmly welcomed into Chez Cheshire, and Amelie quickly made herself at home by running up and down the stairs, spinning around the living room, and generally attempting to turn their immaculate house into something resembling the tip we call home, in the space of half an hour. I'm pleased to say she failed. Although it wasn't for lack of trying.

In addition to Jon & Steph, we were lucky enough to meet their daughter (that's not her on the stairs), who's currently training to be a teacher, and is therefore used to problem children like ours. She had the glove puppets out within five minutes, and proved to be a hit with them both. And with me and Lisa too. To be honest, she's a bit of a star, and such a credit to her parents that they'll never need to visit

Having downed two cups of tea and a few biscuits, the seven of us headed out in two cars for a guided tour of the area, which gave Amelie the chance to tell us that her favourite person in the whole of Milton Pils is the lady in the zebra outfit. A statement which threw us slightly, until we realised that Jon & Steph's daughter had pictures of zebras on her top.

Our first stop was Caldecotte Lake, which demonstrated just how far from being a concrete jungle Milton Keynes really is. In reality it's a green and pleasant land. Which is not surprising, given the name of the poem that phrase comes from. We were essentially Blake's seven, building Jerusalem on a wet afternoon in November, around the corner from the Open University.

But in reality, I did want to see some concrete...

And the cows didn't disappoint. Although I felt they lacked a visitors' centre with a gift shop and café. You basically have to park in a housing estate and then stand on the hard shoulder. And I don't mean astride the cows. It's not what you'd call ideal.

With the tourist traps done, we headed into town (which I always thought was a city) for something to eat. Parking in Milton Keynes is free, which is enough to make me want to move there immediately, and before long we were relaxing at Bella Italia with the kind of food that would make Dr Atkins turn in his grave. The waiter called Amelie 'Princess', which was the highlight of her life so far, and the meal was as good as the company.

By the end of the evening, we'd discussed international espionage, prog rock, job interviews and the Pet Shop Boys, whilst spilling baby milk on the floor, and working our way through five helium balloons. So we all left the place on a high. At least our voices did.

Unfortunately there's always one wet blanket trying to put a dampener on things. This was Steph with our daughter a year ago...

And here's the same lady with our son last night...

The difference is that Amelie knows about Steph's skills as a chocolate-maker. And no one's dressed her as Freddy Krueger.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

At the age of fifteen months, Toby's still refusing to walk across the floor unaided, no matter how much I try to tempt him with biscuits, building blocks and pictures of nipples. (I keep the latter around purely for that purpose). But stick a flamingo and a rabbit in a pink buggy, and he's marching down the hallway like a German in Poland...

What I like about that video is not the fact that Toby can walk, or that Amelie can blend into the background like a master of disguise, and go completely unnoticed by all but the keenest-eyed viewer. It's the look she gives me at the end, as she rushes to her brother's aid, and realises that her father's doing sod-all to help. It's a look I see quite often.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Six days after the flu injection, and my arm looks like this...

It's no wonder they call it a jab. I look like I've been punched in the shoulder by a bloke with a very small fist. Obviously it's reassuring to know that I'm now protected from the ravages of flu, but as a bonus I appear to be developing gangrene. So in addition to cutting back on Lem-sip this winter, I'll only need one glove. I'll be single-handedly saving myself a fortune.

But amputations aside, yesterday was Bonfire Night, so while I still had all my limbs, I decided to throw myself into the festivities by attempting to blow my hand off with a firework. Unfortunately we only had last year's leftover sparklers, but they were well past their use-by date, so it gave them an element of danger. It's important to make an effort when you've got children, so having told Amelie I was doing nothing until I'd had my tea, I eventually headed out onto the balcony in my onesie with a box of matches, before realising I was never going to be able to light them in a high wind, and deciding to let off my fireworks indoors.

Ten minutes later, I'd perfected the art of lighting sparklers next to the curtains and then darting out onto the balcony before I set the sofa on fire. Last year we dressed Amelie in a woolly hat and mittens. This year she had bare feet and a dressing gown. By next year she'll be in care.

It went well though. Having watched a health & safety bulletin on Cbeebies, Amelie insisted we had a bucket of water on standby, and then refused to hold any sparklers herself on the grounds that they might set her hair on fire. Clearly that wasn't a problem for me. So while my family cowered indoors on the sofa, I proved myself to be a real man by holding high explosives on the balcony and taking photos through the door...

They couldn't take their eyes off me. Even the TV's watching.

Monday, November 04, 2013

After more than ten years of (almost) ceaseless writing, this blog is currently facing the biggest threat to its existence since the summer of 2006, when I got a nasty paper cut on my favourite typing finger, and had to retire to the sofa to watch extra episodes of Bargain Hunt. That hideous, damaging and possibly evil threat to my life's work looks like this...

Although, admittedly, without them I'd have nothing to write about. The fact is that for the past few months, Toby's been remaking Cloverfield, using our flat as the film set of New York, and taking the part of the monster himself. Amelie's doing most of the filming, and I'm playing the Statue of Liberty. I lost my head in an earlier scene.

That chaos has coincided with Amelie starting school, and learning important lessons like how to throw her weight around at home - sometimes in a literal sense - whilst becoming ever more demanding in her attempts to read, write and produce artistic representations of my parenting skills. Most of which involve sad faces and big crosses. I feel like we're drowning in a sea of phonics books and Megablocks, whilst struggling to reach dry land. Mainly because we can't see the floor.

So I'm not finding much time to blog. I did, however, force a gap into my schedule yesterday morning to visit a couple of cool cats...

Not those cats, obviously. They're not so much cool as out in the cold. I'm talking about their hip owners, Stefan and Andrew, who kindly invited me around to their flat (or possibly I invited myself) for a brunch of good conversation and informed debate. I was offered hot dogs for breakfast, so Lisa's insisting I take her with me next time.

That morning was the highlight of my weekend, although that's not saying much, as the rest of it involved putting up shelves, fixing a leaky wall vent, and browsing the cat litter scoops at the nearest pet shop. I managed to break Chloe's scoop on Friday evening by panning for gold and picking up lead, so Amelie and I headed down to the garden centre on Saturday to buy a new one. I was hoping to get something cheap and cheerful, but their range was seriously expensive.

The good news is that if you're too exhausted to shake your hand from side to side for more than half a second, then you can now buy a vibrating cat litter scoop which does it for you. Although if you're that lazy, you should probably swap your cat for a sloth. Or fit a cat-flap.

As it happens, I didn't go for that one. Mainly because it didn't come in pink, and my personal shopper has very exacting standards. So instead we bought a BecoScoop, which is not only the colour of candyfloss, but is apparently "made from the natural plant fibres found in bamboo and rice husks". Thereby making it useful to both cats and pandas. I presume it's made in China. Unfortunately, the packaging states that the scoop is fully biodegradable, so if I leave it in the litter tray overnight, it won't be there in the morning. Next time I'm sticking with plastic.

Friday, November 01, 2013

The good thing about Amelie having her own camera is that she can capture those precious childhood moments that Lisa and I can't be bothered to pay attention to. Amelie ran into the kitchen yesterday morning and said "Daddy! Look at these photos I've just taken of Toby!". She then showed me a series of action shots of my son wrestling a cat on the sofa...

I'm not sure which one of them needs a haircut the most.

Anyhoo, what I like about this situation is that firstly Amelie could get some freelance work for Sports Illustrated, and secondly she's reacted to a sudden and unexpected case of animal cruelty, not by intervening to ensure a safe outcome, but by grabbing her camera and snapping some pics. Which is exactly what I would have done. She's a chip off the old block.

Of course, yesterday was Halloween, a time for scary, blood-curdling experiences at the hands of violent, well-armed psychopaths. So I went to get my flu jab from Occupational Health. They'd put up signs in the department stating that 'THE FLU VACCINE WILL NOT GIVE YOU FLU', in an attempt to stop ignorant people like myself claiming that it's made them ill. But they also handed me a list of possible side-effects, which is like a blood-red rag to a hypochondriac bull.

And frankly I felt rough for the rest of the day. Apparently Fluarix can give you headache, muscular pain, shivering and fatigue, and by the time I left work, I'd ticked them all off my list of symptoms. I also had a painful arm. But fortunately the convulsions and paralysis haven't kicked in yet.

The bad news is that despite feeling like I'd been jabbed with the flu, I was welcomed home by a five-year-old witch in a 99p skeleton mask who was desperate to go out trick-or-treating. And as a caring and selfless father, I found myself saying yes.

Although naturally I refused to go with her.

Fortunately, Lisa's sister is a lot more game than we are, and agreed to let Amelie tag along with her gang of monsters for an evening of robbery and threatening behaviour. So I drove my daughter across town, banged on my sister-in-law's door, shouted "Trick or Treat!", and then abandoned her there on the doorstep. I returned two hours later to find her slightly traumatised by a bloke in a giant chicken head, and clutching a pumpkin full of sweets. That's what I call a good night out.