Lead Stories

In February the attorney general of the Australian state of Victoria announced his intention to abolish the “widow discount”–a holdover from 19th-century English common law that allows courts to lower the benefits a woman receives upon her husband’s death according to how pretty she is. (Technically a judge is supposed to evaluate the widow’s prospects for remarriage, but in practice this tends to mean attractive women get less money–the widow most recently deemed a looker lost about $71,000 before an appeals court intervened in November.)

Retired systems analyst James C. Schaefer, 64, recently self-published an autobiography chronicling his struggle with “Wisconsinaphobia.” He developed severe back pain while living in Milwaukee in the 70s, and though it subsided after he relocated to San Diego, anything that reminded him of his home state–a car salesman with a Wisconsin accent, the logo of a Wisconsin company (Harley-Davidson), a Wisconsin-made product (Jockey briefs), even a public utility truck (he’d worked for the largest utility in Wisconsin)–triggered a bout of debilitating anxiety and insomnia; if he tried to make plans to visit family in Wisconsin, his back pain returned. Schaefer says he’s now “90 percent” cured, after intensive therapy.

Readers’ Choice

In February in Kent, Ohio, police visited 35-year-old Crystal Lynn and asked her to modify the “inappropriate snow figure” in her yard–specifically, they wanted her to do something about its breasts. At first she draped the figure’s bosom in a ruffled tablecloth, but once she realized the officers were merely passing along a citizen complaint, she took it off again, saying she felt “insulted” by the whole business: “It’s just snow.”

Government in Action

According to a February report in the Wall Street Journal, officials at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain repository for high-level radioactive waste are struggling with a Nuclear Regulatory Commission requirement that the site erect markers that will warn intruders of its dangers until the year 12,000 AD. (One problem is that no one knows whether any present-day language will still be used then–the most ancient writings known are fragments of Sanskrit only 7,000 years old.) Among the proposals submitted, a current favorite is a schematic of a slumped, sickened stick figure with a radiation symbol on its torso, next to a huge icon of a drill; among those judged to have “no merit” is a plan to make the surface of Yucca Mountain a global feces dump, to discourage the curious.

According to a February article in the New York Times, a congressional report by the Joint Committee on Taxation concluded that Enron’s tax-avoidance schemes (including 692 “subsidiaries” in the Cayman Islands) were “financial maneuvers so complex that the Internal Revenue Service has been unable to understand them.” Even so, IRS staff failed to challenge the company, instead accepting opinion letters from Enron’s law firms that vouched for the arrangements–letters Enron spent millions of dollars to procure.

People Different From Us

According to police in Jonesville, Tennessee, 30-year-old Gary Lee McMurray was arrested for grand larceny in February after he phoned Debra Letourneau of Long Hollow (who was at the home of another man at the time), explained that he had her upper plate of false teeth, and told her that if she didn’t pay him a ransom he’d stomp on them.

Least Competent Person

Selimy Mensah, 39, was hospitalized in Leonia, New Jersey, in February with second- and third-degree burns. According to police, she’d started a fire in her second-floor apartment when she tried to open a canister of spray paint with an electric can opener.


Last year a disc jockey at KORB radio in Davenport, Iowa, offered listeners $30,000 a year for five years to tattoo “93 Rock” on their foreheads. Richard Goddard Jr. was one of two men to get the tattoo, and received wide newspaper coverage when he claimed the station had reneged on the deal. In January Goddard was staying at a trailer park in Colona, Illinois, with John and Mary Rushman, who police say beat him in the face with a ball peen hammer and tried to hang him from a beam because they were sick of his griping and suicide threats.

A Nation at War

In February officers of the South Dakota Highway Patrol made a guns-drawn stop of a man who was driving a white van on Interstate 90 while wearing a gas mask. (He was released without charge after his story–that his business was delivering food to restaurants, and the inside of his van had developed “quite a smell”–checked out.)

In the Last Month

China’s Yunnan province dispatched a fleet of 18 “mobile execution vehicles” directly to its intermediate courts, so that capital punishment (by lethal injection) could be imposed immediately upon a guilty verdict. . . . And a 54-year-old German artist announced his plan to open a canine brothel in Berlin, where owners (for about $25) could bring their pets to have sex with other dogs in private rooms–prompting New York artist and satirist Joey Skaggs, who’d perpetrated an elaborate “Cathouse for Dogs” hoax in 1976, to wonder if he was being ripped off.

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