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News of the Weird



Lead Stories

An October Los Angeles Times story described a coming-of-age ritual in the Efik community of Nigeria in which young girls spend several weeks in "fattening rooms," where they are forced to eat and forbidden to exercise. Thinness is considered unattractive, indicating sickliness and infertility. "Beauty is in the weight," explained a 50-year-old mother. Said a village chief, "People might laugh at parents who didn't have money to allow their child to pass through this rite of passage."

In October the New York Times reported on the emerging mental-health condition of "uplift anxiety," suffered by some Prozac users who have difficulty adjusting to their newfound happiness. Said a writer who used the drug to overcome depression, "The most fundamental aspect of yourself has been ripped away."

A pamphlet for parents on coping with marijuana use by their kids, written by a Utah criminology professor and recommended by U.S. senator Orrin Hatch, identifies "excessive preoccupation with social issues, race relations, environmental issues, etc" as a warning sign of drug use. Also mentioned are more obvious signs like staying out all night, needing more money, and a sudden interest "in Ras Tafari religion," according to an October report in the Washington Post.

Magic Animals

An October Associated Press dispatch reported that about 1,000 people came to a hillside near Alcala de la Selva, Spain, to touch a 17-by-17-foot rock formation that resembles a toad. Rubbing the rock is said to bring success in love, the lottery, and civil-service exams. And outside of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, a baby girl born in May with scaly lesions on her back has been dubbed the "dragon baby" and is said to bring good luck to anyone who touches her. Also in Cambodia, villagers in the southern town of Sihanoukville worship two oxen by drinking their urine, and in two other towns, people regularly swim in, bathe in, and drink from pools of water that are homes to a turtle and a snake said to have healing powers.

Life Imitates Barney Fife

In July eight inmates escaped from a jail in Rayong, Thailand, while guards were watching the World Cup match between Germany and Croatia. A nearby monitor showed the breakout in progress, but the guards didn't notice. And in May a jailer in Clinton County, New York, was fired for rigging one of the monitors to carry the final episode of Seinfeld, even though there were no incidents.

Air Travel Ain't What It Used to Be

In October medical tests showed that Khyl Hardy, six, had been bitten by a poisonous taipan snake. He and his mother say it happened during an Ansett Airlines flight from Melbourne, Australia, to Perth when Khyl reached under his seat to retrieve a lollipop he'd dropped and felt a sting. The snake was not found. Also in October passengers and crew on an Air Canada flight to England spent 20 minutes trying to catch a bat that had been brought aboard in a passenger's carry-on bag.

Government in Action

In June workers remodeling city hall in Echo, Oregon, ventured into the 4,000-square-foot attic where pigeons had apparently been roosting since the building opened in 1916. It took a waste-removal crew a week to clear out the five and a half tons of droppings. Said the city manager, "It's a wonder the ceiling didn't collapse."

July marked the start of a program in Georgia called "Better Brains for Babies: Maximizing Georgia's Brain Power," which provides a classical-music CD to every baby born in the state. Governor Zell Miller was persuaded by research showing that the music stimulates parts of the brain that might otherwise fall permanently into disuse. But, said Miller, "I've always thought the children of Georgia were the smartest anywhere."

In May the city of West Haven, Connecticut, installed a flashing "Noise Laws Strictly Enforced" sign on the three-mile drive along the city's picturesque coastline. Several hours later the mayor removed the sign because the generator powering it was making too much noise.

A going-away party for retiring U.S. postmaster general Marvin Runyon in May, budgeted at $82,500 actually cost $120,000, according to a Freedom of Information Act request. Included in the bill were a video of Runyon's career and travel expenses for out-of-town guests. Asked about the event by NBC News, Runyon called the cost "unfortunate" but said it was a "great party."

The Baltimore Sun reported in September that for 12 months between 1997 and 1998, the special-education office of the city school system gave away cruises and electronic appliances to 2,400 students as compensation for the system's failure to educate them. Some of the students are functionally illiterate, but nearly 150 received certificates worth at least $5,000, with three students getting $30,000 worth. Some students requested the equivalent value in job training but were given TV sets, stereos, fax machines, and computers, which they did not know how to use, instead.

Least Competent Criminals

Roger McCown, 20, was arrested in Toledo, Ohio, in October after a series of mishaps during two robberies. At a convenience store, police said, McCown tried to cut a power cord to disable the cash register and got an electric shock. Then, after asking for a bag to put the money in, he became confused when the clerk asked, "Paper or plastic?" He also left his knife behind when he fled. He was captured several hours later after he allegedly robbed a pizza shop. Apparently his getaway driver was late, and police found McCown waiting on a street corner.

Least Justifiable Homicides

A 28-year-old woman in Winnipeg was shot to death in August, and in July a 36-year-old man was shot and injured near Williamsburg, Kentucky, both after arguments over animals. The Winnipeg woman's cat had defecated one time too many in a neighbor's sandbox, and the Kentucky victim had just purchased a fighting chicken from a man when the seller's alleged partner showed up with a gun saying that the chicken shouldn't have been sold without his permission.

Send your weird news to Chuck Shepherd, Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago 60611.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Shawn Belshwender.

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