Monthly Archives: December 2014

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The Countdown Begins

Fireworks, dancing, kissing at midnight … who doesn’t love the revelry of ringing in the New Year?

But what’s the deal with people dropping things on New Year’s Eve? We had to know. It turns out that the Times Square Ball was, indeed, the first celebratory ball to drop (on New Year’s Eve, 1907), but now there are all sorts of other crazy things descending from the heavens on the last night of the year. Where did it all begin?

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Photo by Hunter Kahn via Wikimedia Commons

Apparently, at sea. Before the convenience of modern navigational tools on ships, sailors relied on “time balls,” usually stationed onshore at observatories because the clocks were set according to the positions of the sun and stars. The large wooden or metal spheres were dropped once a day at 1 p.m., and ships could observe and reset their time when the ball started dropping. One time ball—installed at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, England, in 1833 (below)—has dropped at 1 p.m. every day since then.

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Photo by Rept0n1x via Wikimedia Commons

The dropping tradition has since been adopted by countless cities around the country—with certain regional eccentricities, that is. Take a look …

The Annual Peach Drop in Atlanta, Georgia, is celebrated by dropping an 8′ peach, crafted of painted fiberglass and foam, from a whopping 138′.

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Peach Drop Tower, photo by Rjluna2 via Wikimedia Commons

In Mt. Olive, North Carolina, you’ll find the New Year’s Eve Pickle Drop, but don’t wait until midnight to catch a glimpse of the giant glowing pickle’s descent, which is scheduled to coincide with midnight Greenwich Mean Time (7 p.m. North Carolina time).

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Photo by RadioFan via Wikimedia Commons

It would seem that North Carolina is keen on the New Year’s Eve drop because, in addition to the pickle, it also hosts the Raleigh Acorn Drop in “The City of Oaks.” The giant copper acorn weighs 1,250 lbs, and unlike the premature pickle drop, the acorn is ceremoniously lowered at the stroke of midnight. And at the Flea Drop in Eastover (known as Flea Hill until the 1920s), a 30-lb, 3′-tall flea made of fabric, foam, wire, and wood is dropped at midnight.

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Photo by Ke4roh via Wikimedia Commons

In Vincennes, Indiana, an 18′, 500-lb watermelon ball made of steel and foam is raised 100′ in the air during the countdown to midnight. On the hour, the watermelon opens and drops 11 real locally-grown watermelons amid a flurry of fireworks.

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Photo via VisitIndiana.com

Panama City, Florida, drops 10,000 inflated beach balls along Pier Park’s beachfront boardwalk at the nation’s only family beach-ball drop. Elsewhere in Florida, Key West drops a 6′ queen conch shell, Miami drops a 35′ orange from a 400′ perch, and Sarasota drops an 8′-tall glowing pineapple.

So this New Year’s Eve, look up … you never know what you might see dropping from the midnight sky.

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Mad Honey

Are you mad for honey?

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Photo courtesy National Honey Board, Honey.com

Did you love our tour of worldwide beehives earlier this year? Well then, you’ll want to hop aboard the Jane train as we venture off to the Black Sea region of Turkey in search of a mysterious variety of mountain honey that may be as treacherous as it is tantalizing …

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Photo by Dr. Zeynel Cebeci via Wikimedia Commons

As we arrive in the beautiful port of Gulburnu, a small seaside village in Turkey’s Giresun province, the scenery looks peaceful and picturesque. Not a trace of … madness. Let’s have a look around. Hmmm … all is quiet as we ascend the slopes above town.

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Photo of mountains on Turkey’s Black Sea coast by Gardenlantern via Wikimedia Commons

Who might we ask about the honey known locally as deli bal … Hello? Excuse me, can you tell us where we might find deli bal? HELLO!?

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Photo by Ziegler175 via Wikimedia Commons

Can you imagine? They never even stopped to look at us! Perhaps that’s the reaction we should expect when asking about a type of honey that has, at least once in history, been used as a weapon of war.

It’s true.

“In 67BC, King Mithridates’ army left chunks of ‘mad honeycomb’ in the path of the Roman enemy, who gobbled it up, lost their minds, and were promptly slain,” reports The Guardian.

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Photo by Skrissh2013 via Wikimedia Commons

Deli bal, or orman komar bali (rose of the forest honey), is rare regional honey produced by the pollination of certain rhododendron varieties that contain a natural poison called grayanotoxin.

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Photo of toxic Turkish Rhododendron luteum by Karduelis via Wikimedia Commons

According to Emma Bryce of Modern Farmer, “In Turkey, not only do the poisonous rhododendrons abound, but the humid, mountainous slopes around the Black Sea provide the perfect habitat for these flowers to grow in monocrop-like swaths. When bees make honey in these fields, no other nectars get mixed in—and the result is deli bal, potent and pure.”

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Photo of toxic Turkish Rhododendron ponticum by Karduelis via Wikimedia Commons

While “mad honey” is rarely fatal, consuming more than minute amounts can cause low blood pressure, heartbeat irregularity, nausea, numbness, blurred vision, fainting, potent hallucinations, and seizures.

No wonder no one wants to tell us where to find it! Mum’s the word …

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Photo by Seattle Globalist via Wikimedia Commons

“People believe that this honey is a kind of medicine,” Süleyman Turedi, a doctor at Turkey’s Karadeniz Technical University School of Medicine, told Bryce. “They use it to treat hypertension, diabetes mellitus, and some different stomach diseases.” He went on to say that deli bal is taken in small amounts, sometimes boiled in milk, and consumed typically just before breakfast.

That is, if you dare.

“If you do find yourself in the area and want a taste, you’ll have to dig a bit deeper than supermarket shelves,” Bryce advises. “Ask nicely, and chances are most local shopkeepers will hand over a jar from a stash tucked behind the counter, adding to the old-world mystery of it all.”

So, tell me … would you dare?

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And …

Recently, I noticed a new store in Moscow called Ampersand. According to their website, it’s an “Oil & Vinegar Tap House.” They offer infused oils and vinegar from around the world on tap, along with other specialty grocery items. But the name seems to stump some passersby. I overheard two people trying to pronounce it and wondering aloud what it could mean.

Ampersand is a fancy word for a common symbol … the “and” sign.

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photo, http://blog.dictionary.com/ampersand/

And, seems like it’s been everywhere lately … it popped up on Dictionary.com the other day when I was checking the spelling of some obscure word under a heading titled “What Character Was Removed from the Alphabet?”. Dictionary.com goes on to tell us that the symbol “&” was first used by Roman scribes in the 1st century, when they linked the two letters of “and” in Latin, “et,” in a kind of early shorthand. And the symbol was actually part of the alphabet in early English, coming after the Z at the end of the alphabet (X, Y, Z, &). But when reciting the alphabet, it was confusing to have the word “and” at the end … and … what?

So students reciting the alphabet used the words “per se” (by itself) to clarify: “X, Y, Z, and per se &.”

and-per-se-and … ampersand!

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Create a LEGOS set!

We have LEGOS strewn all over our house on a very regular basis. My 5-year-old, Mia, claims she’s going to be a builder when she grows up. Turns out, she can be, and it could be a result of building and designing LEGO sets. In fact, anyone so inspired can create the next new lego set for sale.

Meet Thomas Poulson, a tree surgeon and gardener in Bristol, UK, whose passion for nature and love of LEGOS have collided to inspire the very first LEGO Bird Set. Poulson credits a chance encounter with a certain Robin Red Breast, who happened to land on his shovel while he was working one day, as the inspiration that began his journey.

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A recently rekindled passion for LEGOS (he refers to them as the best puzzle in the world) sent him scurrying home that fated evening to work on an idea, and “Bobby the Robin” was born. The original Poulson made that first night was given to his mother as a thank-you for providing him with his first set of LEGOS. He found the creation of Bobby so enjoyable that he decided to make his favorite birds of Europe. When he finished the first seven and posted them online, he was quickly encouraged to submit his ideas directly to LEGO, where enthusiasts get a chance to see their ideas in production if they get 10,000 supporters. Poulson says the biggest challenge of designing is that he never has enough LEGOS, a sentiment with which LEGO builders like my Mia can sympathize.

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Story Prompts

Do you know Frederick? He has big ears, sleepy eyes, and a rather prominent tail.

Oh—maybe I forgot to mention—Frederick is a mouse. He’s the unlikely hero of a lovely little book by Leo Lionni called … you guessed it:

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It’s a children’s book, but I really don’t like making such a rigid distinction because, hey, we’re all kids at heart, right? And this tiny gem speaks volumes to literature lovers, no matter what age.

Frederick, you see, is considered among his mischief (i.e. mouse tribe) to be a layabout loafer. In the eyes of his hardworking companions, he appears to shirk his pre-winter duties—stockpiling grain and the like—in favor of daydreaming.

“Frederick, why don’t you work?” they ask. “Are you dreaming?”

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Image courtesy of Story Philosophy blog

But in fact, Frederick is working, in his own way. Instead of corn and nuts, he’s gathering words.

Words? How can words possibly be as important to winter survival as food?

That’s for Frederick, in all his marvelously mousy wisdom, to tell …

Winter may be upon us, but that doesn’t mean we can’t start collecting sunbeams and colors and words right now. This season of togetherness is the perfect time to share the intangible treasures of poetry, songs, and stories. But if you don’t have a friendly Frederick around to gather goodies, the next best thing is a good story prompt. A prompt is a preliminary nugget of an idea that sparks the telling of a tale, and thanks to the Internet, prompts are easy to come by. Take a look at the sites below, collect some tidbits that tantalize the imagination, and jot them on separate scraps of paper. Then gather your loved ones (big and small) for an old-fashioned storytelling session that will brighten even the darkest of winter’s nights.