News of the Weird December 31 2008

LEAD STORY: The Christmas Nativity scenes in northeast Spain’s Catalonia region have, for three centuries, featured not only Mary and the Three Wise Men but the ubiquitous “caganer” icon, always portrayed with pants down answering a call of nature (and often so obscured in the scene as to popularize Waldo-type guessing by children). The origin of the caganer (literally, “pooper”) is unclear, but some regard it merely as symbolic of equality (in that everyone has bowel movements). Catalonia is now home to artists who craft statuettes of religious and sports figures, celebrities and politicians poised to relieve themselves. One family in Girona province sells about 25,000 a year, according to a November dispatch in Germany’s Der Spiegel.

People Different From Us: Larry and Diana Moyer set out in November from Beaver Dam, Wis., in their oversized RV to spend some warm days in St. Petersburg, Fla. Since they travel with their pets, Jack (Diana’s “service” kangaroo) and Edward (an elderly goat that uses a cart for mobility because of front-leg paralysis), their route south was circuitous because of some states’ restrictions on “exotic” pets. The RV broke down three times. In Florida, Larry had a stroke and was hospitalized for two days. Then, a fuse box short-circuited, and the RV burned up, torching their money and ID. Diana was hospitalized for smoke inhalation. With Red Cross help, they found a motel that accepted goats (but not kangaroos, so Jack went overnight to a wildlife facility). At press time, according to a Tampa Tribune report, the couple had bought a junk car and were headed home.

Leading Economic Indicators: When the Poway Unified School District of San Diego cut teachers’ printing budgets this year, some handout-intensive instructors had to dip into their own pockets to keep their students supplied. Calculus teacher Tom Farber decided in September to sell ad space on page one of his exams, at $10 for a quiz and up to $30 on the semester final. As of November, he told the San Diego Union-Tribune, only parent-sponsored inspirational messages have been bought, but he said he would welcome certain retailers’ ads.

Economic Stimulus: A British surgeon will spend an estimated 250,000 pounds ($370,000) to equip her luxury home in Gloustershire with a state-of-the-art, three-room suite for her two Great Danes, including cameras so that she can monitor them via the Internet while she is away. Instead of an ordinary dog door, a retina scanner will control entry, and rather than rely on human stewards, the big darlings will be dispensed filtered water and dry food automatically in self-cleaning bowls.

The Continuing Crisis: A recently published cookbook touts imaginative dishes served by world-renowned chef Ferran Adria of the world’s top-rated elBulli in Spain. Probably too complex for home cooking are the parmesan ice cream sandwiches, calamari tube ravioli with coconut gel, and especially the preserved tuna-oil air (to create foam).

Science on the Cutting Edge: Latest Off-Label Uses of Viagra: Britain’s The Sun reported in November that Calvin Muteesa, 2, of South London has been forced to take Viagra four times a day since he was 3 months old to stave off a potentially fatal case of pulmonary arterial hypertension. And Bentley, a 7-year-old springer spaniel, has apparently recovered from a potentially fatal lungworm attack on his chronically weak heart via a Viagra regimen at a clinic in Highgate, England.

In October, ABC News profiled a 6-year-old boy with a rare coordination disorder called Angelman syndrome, which makes the afflicted seem stiff and jerky, but which also fosters a cheerful, gregarious (though non-verbal) personality, leading the disorder to be known as the “happy puppet syndrome.”

“This is a rare occurrence,” said a Loyola University (Chicago) neurology professor in September, describing to only the seventh reported case of someone suffering from a stroke during orgasm. Several things must be present in series to create the condition, including having an unnatural opening between the two upper chambers of the heart (a “PFO”). Also, a blood clot must develop and break loose and then get sucked through the PFO at the moment of ecstasy, sending it directly to the brain.

Least Competent Criminals: Robert Garrett, 33, and Jesse Dyer, 32, were arrested in Lincoln, Neb., in November and charged with burglary and the theft of a 55-inch TV, which they had taken to their car, only to realize that it wouldn’t fit. When a next-door neighbor spotted them, they tried to bribe her for $100, to hold the set until they could return with a bigger car, but she called the police.

Joseph Barton, 62, and an associate were arrested in November by local drug officials in Hurley, N.Y., and charged with a marijuana growing and distribution scheme of “epic scope and sophistication,” according to a Times Herald-Record report. Besides the 45 pounds of marijuana seized, the chief evidence are copies of Barton’s self-made biographical DVD chronicling a life of drug deals, describing candidly his adventures and business acumen.

Recurring Themes: More people who put their brains on standby while using satellite navigation systems: 1) In July, a group of 10 children and 16 adults from California were stranded in their cars in wilderness near cliffs close to the Grand Canyon, to which they had been misdirected by their navigation system. Rescuers were able to talk them back the next day on their cell phones. 2) Also in July, a truck driver hauling a 32-ton load from Turkey through several European countries headed for Gibraltar in the southern tip of Spain missed his destination by about 1,600 miles, winding up at a dead end in Skegness, England. (Gibraltar is a British territory and both places have a Coral Road, which was the destination.)