Wednesday, May 08, 2013

In which I talk about a lot of random things

In yesterday's crazy storm, a friend's house got struck by lightning—or, as Miriam would call it, flashling. This is the second family I've known of to have this happen to them right here in North Carolina. I don't think I know of anyone else whose house has been struck by lightning (unless that's how the fire in the King's apartment building started when we lived in Burnaby. I can't remember, but if it is then that would bring my total up to three).

Andrew and I were talking about this last night and I said, "How does that work? I mean, how many houses do you know around here that are taller than the trees in the yard?"

"I know, right?" he said. "It doesn't make sense for the house to get hit if there are taller things around."

We both looked at each other and instantly knew the truth: we'd been had. 

It turns out that lightning is fairly impartial to where it strikes. It turns out that we and everything else on the earth are partial to where lightning strikes. The whole water cycle plays a role in charging the atmosphere with electricity but somehow we begin radiating electricity, too, daring that thunderbolt to strike us. So, whenever a downward leader (from the cloud) gets close to an upward streamer (from the earth) is when lightning strikes. It doesn't matter how tall you are compared to your surroundings. Lightning's been known to strike the bare ground mere feet away from tall metal poles. 

"Oops," admitted Andrew. "Just this morning when we were waiting for the bus, I told Rachel that she didn't have to worry about lightning because of all the trees. She pointed out which tree was most likely to get hit first—the tallest one—and I told her she was right."

Even though lightning does not strike the tallest object you're still not supposed to take shelter under a tree because trees are more likely to be hit since they are proven "paths of least resistance" to the ground. But not only because they're tall—like, if you chose the second or third tallest tree of three trees to hide under during a thunderstorm, anyone one of them could be hit. Lightning doesn't measure to see which tree is tallest; it will just pick one. Randomly. Or maybe it will pick the puny sapling. It doesn't care.

Ideally you'd get inside a car or a building to get out of the storm—and not because of the rubber tires on the car rubber is no match for the electrical power of lightning. Rather, the car acts as a Faraday cage. I imagine houses are similar. If I'm inside, the electricity isn't going to choose me (hopefully) but will instead choose my pipes or something. 

Andrew and I were both a little spooked after reading so much about lightning yesterday. 

"It's like we're all just walking around—like targets—even raising our hands to volunteer to be hit," Andrew said gravely. "I always used to calculate my safety by my height. I will never feel safe ever again because I now know that I constantly have upward streamers reaching into the sky just waiting to connect with those downward streamers."

"I know! That's so freaky! I guess that's why feeling your hair rise is a warning sign that lightning is near—because the electricity is reaching up through you to meet the downward leaders."

"Yeah," Andrew said. "When we were walking out of Target [we went to Target to get makeup for the girls for their ballet the middle of this crazy storm] I was watching your hair to see if it was standing up because that's a sign you're about to be struck by lightning."

"Oh, thanks," I said. "And what would you have done if it had been standing up? Jumped out of the way?"

"That was pretty much my plan."

We had fresh pineapple with dinner yesterday—because they were on sale for 99 cents each. I don't know that I've ever seen a pineapple for that price!

We were enjoying it along with our oven-baked macaroni and cheese (made by me which is true love because I don't really like macaroni and cheese) when Andrew remarked that he was about done—his mouth was starting to burn.

I thought this was an odd statement since I've never really noticed my mouth burning when I eat pineapple, except for when I have canker sores—and I have one of those right now—but I figured that was because of the acidity of the fruit and not because I was allergic to it or anything.

Andrew mentioned that when he was in Ghana, bingeing on pineapple in the jungle while I was at home chasing rugrats, he had a discussion about this mouth-burning sensation pineapple produced with his peers, all of whom began to experience slight discomfort after eating too much pineapple. Without a ready internet connection, they decided that everyone must be somewhat allergic to pineapple and everyone would begin to have a reaction after consuming their threshold level of pineapple. 

I've never eaten enough pineapple to experience this, I guess, but I do know that my sister Josie doesn't like pineapple for this very reason and I thought it was intriguing (because who doesn't like pineapple?).

It turns out that humans aren't allergic to pineapple. No, no. Pineapple simply contains bromelain, which "breaks down protein." We use it in extract form as meat tenderizer. So basically, when you put pineapple into your mouth it immediately starts breaking down the proteins in your tongue and cheeks—thus the burning sensation. Bromelain is destroyed when you cook or can pineapple, in case you still want to eat pineapple without breaking down the proteins of your tongue in the process.

The word pineapple, in case you are wondering is super old—from when pinecones were called pineapples (back in the, oh, the 1300s (up until the 1600s)). Explorers to South America saw the pineapples growing and thought the fruit resembled pinecones (which are just the "fruit" of pine trees, and which used to be called pineapples) so that's what they called them. They aren't related to pine trees at all, really. But they really are an excellent fruit—which is what the word nanas means (in Tupi).

You can also grow your own pineapple from the top of the pineapple, if you have about two years.

I kind of want to try it...since my poinsettia is doing so well...and I have a fresh pineapple top waiting to be experimented with.

What did people do before the internet? Encyclopedias can only take you so far. Research is much easier than it was even when I was a little girl. I especially love that my children know this and often ask for help to look things up.

We were driving somewhere with the kids the other day and Rachel piped up, "Did you know that not all insects go through four stages? The milkweed bug only goes through three stages: egg...something...and adult. Only I can't remember what comes in the middle."

"Pupa?" I offered.

"No!" she laughed. "Mom—3-stage bugs don't pupate!"

Silliest suggestion ever. What was I even thinking?

"Larva?" Andrew suggested.

"Well, it's like larva but it's another word. I just can't remember it. But it's like egg, kid, adult. Like, four-stage insects have egg, larva, pupa, adult. I wonder if pupas are like teenagers. People are really weird because we have a lot of stages: mommy's tummy, baby, kid, teenager, adult. That's five stages! Not three. Not four. Five!"

Yes, yes, we're very complex creatures.

I was impressed with how well she knew her stuff. Her four-stage insects are insects which undergo complete metamorphosis. Milkweed bugs (and other three-stage insects) undergo incomplete metamorphosis—hemimetabolism. The word she was searching for is "nymph" and it states quite clearly that "there is no pupa stage." 

We're supposedly about to be inundated with cicadas, which are hemimetabolic insects. They've been nymphs for the past seventeen years and it's nearly time to get their adult on.

Firefly season is coming up as well. Fireflies are four-stage bugs. I'm kind of excited for fireflies. 

I'm not so excited for cicadas. And after working in the garden this morning and encountering humongous hairy spiders (huge, guys!) and four-inch-long millipedes (that either curl up when threatened (or release "a noxious liquid that contains large amounts of benzoquinones which can cause dermatological burns" (that's all; no big deal))) I'm not sure that I'm ready for bug season in general. 

Fortunately the carpenter bees and paper wasps seem to have quieted down, but it seems like I'll always have one contender or another.

I won't even tell you how much I've read about copperheads (because our neighbours walked past a 3 or 4 footer while they were walking their dog). I will tell you that after reading as much as I did I feel better about them than I did before. But I still just want them to stay out of my yard...always. Because when they're threatened, they give a warning bite. Other snakes give a warning rattle (rattlesnakes, duh)  or will just show you how big and scary the inside of their mouth is (water mocassins). Not the copperhead though. Oh, no, not him. This snake is like, "I'm scary, see?" *chomp*

Thanks, copperhead. 

The good news is that because they bite so often, they tend to inject very little venom (at least with their "warning" bite) so you probably won't die (they only say that because copperheads are in charge of many, many bites but comparatively few deaths). 

So, there you have it: snakes, bugs, research evolution, pineapple, and lightning all thrown together in one anecdotal essay.

This is why I struggled picking a major in college.


  1. I want to grow my own pineapple. Do I have to have the proper climate to do so?

    Also, I will forever start paying attention to any burning sensation in my mouth while eating it.

    And, also, I dislike eating canned pineapple because I feel like it's tainted with the aluminum canning and that's really what I begin tasting. In fact, I ate canned mandarin oranges, and then this morning canned cherry pie filling and I feel like I now have aluminum (or something metally) in my spit. Is this my cavity fillings reacting? WIll you research *that*? :)

    1. So far--a metallic taste in the mouth can be a sign of a food allergy. I'll keep looking around...

    2. I'm going to go eat canned oranges again and see if that happens again.

    3. It could also just be that they really do absorb that metal flavour.

  2. I loved this random, nerdy post! Ah, I've had that burning sensation from pineapple. I stopped eating it raw because I thought I was allergic. Glad to know what causes it. Thanks for sharing that.

    I loved your lightning talk.

    Lots of good stuff here!

  3. I submit that "old people" is the sixth stage for humans. They are somewhat different from just regular "adults".