Books, Pop Culture and Political Humor from J.D. Rhoades, best-selling author, attorney, and award-winning newspaper columnist.
"Like [Lee] Child, Rhoades dishes out one airtight action scene after another, mixing in just enough character-building moments and holding our interest in a full cast of nicely developed supporting players."-Booklist
A few years ago, I lived on a street in Southern Pines, near the airport. One of my neighbors on that street owned a feisty little dog who would chase my car down the street every day, barking his fool head off.
One day, I slammed on the brakes, looked out the car window, and told the baffled pooch “OK, pal, you caught it! Now what are you gonna do with it?”
Needless to say, he didn’t have an answer.
I’ve been thinking about that dog a lot as I watch the new Republican Congress members try to follow through on the promise they and Russian-backed President-elect Donald Trump made to “repeal and replace Obamacare on Day One.”
You may not have noticed, what with the New Year and all, but Day One has come and gone, and, well, they’re still trying to figure out how to do it.
They’ve whipped up a “budget resolution” that says, in effect, “Yessiree, we’re sure ’nuff going to repeal that nasty Obamacare, just you wait and see,” but how it’s going to be done, and what will replace it, remain as much a mystery as why McDonald’s keeps bringing back the awful McRib sandwich or why “Dating Naked” is an actual TV show.
Meanwhile, Comrade Trumpovitch took a break from his busy schedule of writing thank-you notes to Vladimir Putin and throwing online shade at Meryl Streep to let the Congress know that delays would be unacceptable, and he wants both repeal and replace right now, dang it. He told The New York Times he wants a repeal vote “next week” and a replacement bill “very quickly or simultaneously.”
Trump demanded that no more than “a few weeks” must pass before an entirely new health care bill must be plucked from out of the vast roaring void that is the Republican source of health care ideas. Then it has to pass through the legislative process and be voted on.
Oh, and according to Trump’s prior fiats, it has to keep the things that Americans like, like the prohibition against denying insurance because of pre-existing conditions and letting people keep their offspring on their family health plan until they’re 26. And it has to bring costs down. So let it be written, so let it be done.
Rep. Chris Collins, a Republican from New York and a member of Trump’s transition team, fell back on what’s become a standard Trump response: The guy whose supporters love him because he says what he means doesn’t really mean what he says. Collins told CNN that “I'm not reading it literally literally” when Trump says he wants it done right away.
OK, let me just say right now, I am totally stealing “speaks in concepts.” I can see it now: “Sure, honey, I said I’d be home by 11 and it’s 3 a.m., but, you know, I was just speaking in concepts. You should know not to take me literally literally.” I could also use it at work: “Your Honor, I know I said I’d have that order to you by Friday, but I was, you know, speaking in concepts.”
In any case, the actual timeline for full “repeal and replace” (which, unlike a simple budget resolution, will most likely take some Democratic votes in the Senate), could take months. If they keep the promise made by House GOP Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who said, “Let me be clear: No one who has coverage because of Obamacare today will lose that coverage,” the timeline might stretch out even further, as in “never.”
In that case, one can only imagine the Twitter storm to follow. It’ll be like that famous and often-parodied scene in the movie “Downfall,” in which a certain German dictator goes completely berserk when told that the units he’s ordering into brilliant counterattacks against the encroaching Allies don’t exist anymore. Except from Trump it’ll be 140 characters at a time.
But don’t worry, Congress. Before long, Alec Baldwin or a Dixie Chick will say something President Tweety doesn’t like and he’ll get distracted and leave you alone while he goes off on them, and you can get back to failing at your jobs. Once again, the Republicans have shown that while they can win elections, they’re incapable of doing the actual work of governing.
When we entered a new year at midnight on Jan. 1, a lot of things changed here in North Carolina.
Our new governor, Roy Cooper, was officially sworn in. Numerous changes in laws ranging from foster care to sales taxes to road tolls kicked in. And, in one fell swoop, we got a bunch of new residents from South Carolina.
The new residents of the Tar Heel State came to us as part of the resolution of a long-standing question as to exactly where the border between North and South Carolina is.
It seems that, back in 1735, when the original survey party was sent out to map the border, they got as far as the mosquito-infested swamps and dense woods that covered what’s now York County, south of Charlotte, and decided, “You know what? We are not getting paid nearly enough for this.”
Subsequent efforts to fix the border only compounded the problem, especially since there’s apparently some sort of “magnetic anomaly” west of Charlotte that’s been mapped by the U.S. Geological Survey and which throws off compasses.
(I feel like somebody really should have looked into this a long time ago. Is there some sort of meteorite buried there? An alien monolith? Gov. Cooper, please get on this ASAP.)
Anyway, it eventually occurred to people that we really needed to get this whole thing settled, and thanks to the miracle of GPS satellites, now we can.
Some wrangling inevitably ensued, however, since the people in the contested borderlands weren’t all that eager to switch states. Eventually, however, compromises were hammered out.
For instance, the Lake Wylie Mini Mart, although suddenly finding itself in North Carolina, can still sell fireworks, and it can keep selling alcohol and gasoline using South Carolina’s lower tax rates. Kids whose state of residence has suddenly changed can get in-state tuition in either state for the next 10 years. And so on.
It’s not clear how many new North Carolinians there are. The South Carolina magazine The State says it’s only 16 (while three families are being shifted to South Carolina), but WRAL’s website pegs the total at “50 homeowners.” Whether it’s 16 or 50, however, we here in the Old North State bid you folks a warm welcome! Now, here are some things you’ll need to know:
First, you’re going to need to pick a North Carolina ACC team to root for. I know some of you former Clemson fans are going to find this traumatic, but that’s just the way it is. The choices are UNC (the Tar Heels), NC State (the Wolfpack), and Wake Forest (the Demon Deacons, a name which we can all agree makes no flippin’ sense whatsoever).
Oh, and some school from Durham. The Blue Meanies or some such nonsense. It’s a school that’s mostly attended by Yankee transplants who aren’t even going to stay here when they graduate, so forget those guys. The choice, of course, is up to you, but I would observe that your new home, North Carolina, is known as the “Tar Heel State.” Just sayin’.
A more emotionally fraught choice involves barbecue. I hear that what South Carolina regards as “barbecue” involves some kind of mustard-based sauce. To which I can only say: I’m so glad we got to you in time. North Carolina ’cue is either Western or “Lexington” style, which usually uses the shoulder of the pig and a tomato-ey sauce, while Eastern, or “the best” style, uses the whole hog, cooked slowly for hours over a wood fire, and a delicious, tangy sauce made of vinegar and pepper.
As I’ve gotten older, my feelings toward Western style have moderated somewhat, which means I no longer consider it an abomination before God. Just no mustard. Please.
Oh, and for the time being, you’re going to have to have your birth certificate handy when you use a public restroom. Don’t ask why, because the answer’s stupid, and we hope we can remedy it soon. But it is what it is.
So, again, welcome to our new North Carolinians, and we hope that, in the words of our State Toast, your weak go strong, and your strong grow great! Just know that they’re never going to do it cheering on some lame team from Durham and eating nasty mustard-based barbecue.
Once again, as everyone else looks back, this column looks forward. Therefore, here’s the Year in Preview:
JANUARY: Frustrated by their inability to secure A-list performers for the inauguration of Donald Trump, the inauguration committee is saved at the last minute when Vladimir Putin sends a delegation consisting of the remaining members of the Red Army Chorus, the Bolshoi Ballet, and pop groups Plazma and Code Red. “Is least Putin could do,” the Russian president announces over Twitter, “considering.”
FEBRUARY: Former Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton emerges from seclusion on Feb. 2, sees her shadow and retreats again, thus signaling that we will have at least six more weeks of winter.
MARCH: After the sudden and unexpected retirement of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, President Trump announces his nomination for her replacement: former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Palin immediately announces her support of overruling not only Roe v. Wade, but also New York Times v. Sullivan, Marbury vs. Madison, and Kramer v. Kramer. When reporters point out that the last one is actually a fictional 1979 movie starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep, Palin angrily tells them that “real Bible-readin’ gun-clingin’ Americans are tired of your coastal-elitin’ fake-newsin’ p.c. flibberdefloo, always talkin’ about your so-called Hollywood facts, you betcha.” Palin’s confirmation hearing is delayed as the Senate searches frantically for a translator.
APRIL: House Speaker Paul Ryan announces his plans for Medicare reform. Controversy ensues when it’s discovered that the bill mostly consists of funding to put the ailing elderly on ice floes in the Arctic and letting them drift away to die. Ryan defends the plan by saying, “The American people are tired of political correctness and want bold solutions to the Medicare crisis, so long as those solutions involve more tax cuts for wealthy people. This plan accomplishes that.”
MAY: President Trump announces that he’s canceling plans to put abolitionist heroine Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. Instead, Trump promises a “big, beautiful new currency” with the face of his daughter Ivanka on the 20, sons Eric, Donald Junior and little Barron on the 5, 10 and 50 respectively, wife Melania on the 100, and daughter Tiffany on the quarter. The visage of Trump himself will be on the newly announced $3 bill. The motto on the back of the bills will be changed from “In God We Trust” to “Suck It Up, Buttercup.”
JUNE: Energy Secretary Rick Perry announces that the Department of Energy has been disbanded. “I’m not sure how it happened, but I showed up for work yesterday and it was gone. Yay me.” Later, it’s revealed that Perry had actually just forgotten where the department was and gone to the wrong building.
JULY: Speaker Ryan’s Medicare plan is derailed when scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are unable to locate any Arctic ice floes due to global warming. Congress responds by banning the use of the words “global warming” and any mention of “ice floes” in official documents before leaving town for their summer recess.
AUGUST: Unable to come up with a plan to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act that doesn’t cause 20 million Americans to lose insurance coverage, President Trump announces via Twitter that “Obamacare is gone. It’s called Trumpcare from now on. Problem solved. Trump = awesome!”
SEPTEMBER: Undaunted by the failure of his Medicare reform plan, Speaker Ryan unveils his plan to reform Medicaid in a bill titled “The Let the Poor Die Act of 2017.” Ryan responds to criticism with a terse statement: “Political correctness. Bold solutions. Tax cuts for the wealthy.”
OCTOBER: Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway is appointed head of a new government agency called “Department of Truth.” She issues a statement that “Obamacare never existed. Also, there were never any promises by President Trump to build a wall, lock up Hillary Clinton, or drain any swamp. Any and all evidence to the contrary is hereby declared ‘fake news’ from the ‘unfair liberal media’ and should be ignored.” Unprecedented Earth tremors in the area of Oxfordshire, England, are investigated by geologists and found to be the result of writer George Orwell spinning like a turbine in his grave.
NOVEMBER: Trump takes to Twitter to proclaim, “We should all give thanks that we can say ‘Happy Thanksgiving’ again. Go Trump!” Puzzled Americans note that we never stopped.
DECEMBER: In accordance with ancient prophecy, the Elder God Cthulhu arises from his resting place beneath the sea to begin his millennia-long reign of madness, chaos and violence. He takes one look at the world, goes “Dang, looks like you folks beat me to it,” and goes back to sleep beneath the waves.
Buckle up, buttercups. It’s gonna be another weird one.
So here it is, Christmas Day. All the halls are decked, all the chestnuts roasted, and all the eggs nogged. If you have kids, your home is no doubt filled with the cheerful din of the little ones doing their level best to completely destroy the toys Santa brought. It’s tradition.
There are lots of traditions at Christmas. There are the big, widely shared ones, like the tree and the pretty lights. But it should surprise no one that, around the world, people celebrate the holidays in ways that are, shall we say, a little different.
In Japan, for example, nothing says “Christmas” like KFC.
While the birth of Jesus isn’t a national holiday in the Land of the Rising Sun, a combination of clever marketing and a craving for holiday fowl among homesick expatriates has caused Colonel Sanders to be as much an icon as Santa Claus this time of year in Japan.
The chain sells an estimated 240,000 “party barrels” of chicken, chocolate cake and wine every holiday. Better get your order in early, though. They often sell out months in advance (My wife, by the way, heartily approves of this tradition).
The folks in Greenland enjoy some more traditional (at least for them) delicacies at Christmastime. There’s “mattiak,” which is a strip of whale skin with blubber inside. It’s reputed to be somewhat chewy.
Or if you’re not into seafood, there’s “kiviak,” which is the flesh of 500 or so auks (a tiny Arctic bird), packed inside a sealskin, which is then sewn up and allowed to ferment for about seven months before the sealskin is opened and what must be a truly indescribable mess is consumed.
Yum! After contemplating that, fruitcake doesn’t seem so bad now, does it?
For truly odd Christmas treats, however, you have to go to the Catalan region of Spain, where one of the iconic figures of the season is the “Tió de Nadal,” or Christmas Log — a hollowed-out piece of wood with a happy face and little wooden legs on one end and the other end open.
Starting Dec. 8, it’s the children’s job to “feed” Tió de Nadal by stuffing him with candies, nuts and other foodstuffs. On Christmas Eve, it’s time for the little guy to earn his other name: Caga Tió, which, politely translated, means “poop log.”
The children beat the log with sticks to make the goodies fall out, while chanting the traditional song that goes, “Poop, log! Poop nougats, hazelnuts and cheese! Poop well, or I’ll beat you with a stick!”
This goes to show you one thing that binds all humanity together: Whatever their nationality, little kids find poop jokes hilarious. When the poor, put-upon log is finally “emptied,” he’s tossed into the fire and burned, which hardly seems fair, really.
And yes, the kids do eat the candy.
The people of Venezuela haven’t had a lot to celebrate recently. But let’s hope they’ve kept one great Christmas tradition alive, by which I mean the tradition of roller-skating to Christmas Mass.
According to MSN, “vehicular access to Caracas is blocked off in many areas before 8 a.m. to allow this unconventional commute to take place, and the night before, children will tie one end of string to their big toe and hang the other out of the window — allowing the passing roller skaters to offer a friendly tug as they pass in the morning.”
All of the above seem somewhat whimsical and light hearted. But in the Netherlands, they seem to have gone out of their way to discover the dark side of Christmas.
For one thing, “Sinterklass,” their version of jolly old St. Nick, doesn’t live with his wife at the North Pole. He lives in Spain, surrounded by a group of dark-skinned assistants (possibly slaves) known as “Zwarte Pieten” (“Black Peters”).
The Zwarte Pieten are sort of like Santa’s enforcers; they’re tasked with beating naughty children with sticks and stuffing the really bad ones into sacks to be dragged off to slavery in Spain. The Zwarte Pieten, played by guys in dark makeup and curly-haired wigs, are a fixture at every public appearance of Sinterklaas, because, after all, what would the joy of Christmas be without the dread of black guys coming to your house, beating you senseless, then dragging you off in a sack?
To their credit, some in the Netherlands have begun questioning whether the idea of scaring little kids with violent guys in blackface is a little bit racist. It’s a debate we’ll leave for another time, because hey, it’s Christmas.
Whatever your Christmas tradition, even if it involves roller skates, KFC, pooping logs or scary black elves, I hope it brings you joy and peace.
Dear Santa: I swallowed my pride. I grinned and laughed at that Cheeto-haired baboon’s stupid jokes and “locker room” talk. I did everything but get on my knees and beg for the secretary of state job. But — well, we know how that turned out. So all I really want for Christmas this year, Santa, is my pride and my dignity back. I’d like to be able to look at myself in the mirror again. — Mitt, Salt Lake City
(Note to staff: You know how I hate disappointing little Mitty, but once you throw that dignity away, it’s gone. Maybe get him a Kindle and an Amazon gift certificate. He’s going to have a lot of time on his hands to read. Again. — S)
Note from staff: OK. You should know we got the same letter from Chris Christie. We’ll give him the same. — Hermie the Elf
Dear Santa: Before the election, I was telling people on Twitter that I was ready to “grab my musket” if Hillary Clinton won. I was telling everyone on my radio show that I was looking forward to Trump “draining the swamp.” Now, I find out that the Russians influenced the elections and Trump’s putting all these Goldman Sachs people and insiders from that very swamp in his administration. I’m really ticked off. But I don’t want any kind of do-over. In fact … well, I’m not sure what I want. What do I want, Santa? Help me! — Joe Walsh, Chicago
Note to staff: Joe Walsh? That goofy guitar player for the Eagles and the James Gang? Did all that life in the fast lane make him lose his mind? — S
Note from staff: No, boss, this guy’s a former Republican congressman who has a right-wing radio show now. We don’t know what happened to his mind, but it ain’t pretty. He’s the first one to jump ship, but he won’t be the last. — Hermie
Dear Santa: I know people love you, but I’m gonna say, no one is as loved as me. I’m the greatest musical artist of all time. You feel me? Of all time! Beethoven? Mozart? Couple of (censored) (censored). But when I visited Trump Tower today to meet with the Prez-elect, I realized that want I really want is to be part of Mr. Trump’s Cabinet. Maybe minister of music. Or secretary of awesome. Something that fits my genius. Oh, and Kim wants a pony. — Kanye, Los Angeles
Note to staff: Wait, this Trump guy doesn’t have time for intelligence briefings, but he’s got time to meet with Kanye West? — S
Note to Santa: Yep. Amazing, ain’t it? — Hermie
Note to staff: Well, Kanye’s totally unqualified and bat-spit crazy. I’m surprised Trump didn’t make him ambassador to Great Britain. — S
Note to Santa: Give it time, boss. — Hermie
Dear Santa: Remember how in 2011, I was talking about the three government agencies I’d abolish, but I couldn’t remember the third one? Well, it’s a funny story, actually, but I’m now nominated to be the head of it. Problem is, I still can’t remember what it is. Can you help me? And maybe give me a map to wherever it’s located so I can find my way to work on the first day? Thanks, amigo. — Rick, Austin, Texas
Note to staff: What’s that herb that’s supposed to increase memory? Kinko something? — S
Note to Santa: Gingko Biloba, boss. And we’ll make sure the missus gets some for you, too. — Hermie
Dear Santa: Greetings from Moscow! President Putin is sending best wishes and wants to reassure our neighbor to the North that planes and icebreaking ships you and elves are seeing in northern waters are mere scientific expeditions. Or are there for fishing. Whatever. Also, is no need to get President Putin anything this year. He has everything he needs with the American president so much in his debt, in so many ways. In fact, President Putin wishes to give gift to all American people: copy of Russian language lessons from, how do you say, Rosetta Stone. Will make things easier later. —Yorgi Dmitriovitch Danilov, secretary to Mr. Putin
Note to staff: I don’t like the sound of this, guys. — S
Note to Santa: We don’t either. Merry Christmas anyway, boss.
High above the teeming streets of the Big Apple, in the secure fortress of Trump Tower, a phone rings. A small, stubby-fingered, but exquisitely manicured hand reaches for the receiver.
“Yeah? What is it? This better be good. I was getting ready to really burn that totally unfunny Alec Baldwin on Twitter.”
“I’m afraid that will have to wait, sir,” the voice on the other end responds. “There’s a problem. It’s the Carrier air conditioning plant in Indiana.”
“You don’t mean …”
“Yes, sir. It’s shipping jobs to Mexico.”
The short-fingered man springs to his feet.
“Not if I can help it! This is a job for … Trump-Man!”
Quickly, mild-mannered billionaire Donald J. Trump dashes into his walk-in closet. When he emerges, he’s clad in a bright orange, skin-tight Spandex suit and turquoise shorts. A mask and cape that match the shorts complete the ensemble. As the cleverly disguised billionaire admires himself in the mirror, a gray-haired man in a dark suit walks in.
“Oh, Lord, not this again,” he mutters.
“Half-Pence, my faithful sidekick!” Trump-Man says. “Just in time! Get into your uniform! There is globalism afoot!”
The gray-haired man sighs.
“Sir, the election’s over. I really don’t think we should be wearing those …”
“No time to waste!” Trump-Man insists. He hustles his sidekick into the closet. After a few minutes, the gray-haired man emerges, shoulders slumped, in similarly tight Spandex, this time colored beige, with the figure “1/2” emblazoned across the chest.
“Excellent!” Trump-Man nods. “Quick! To the Trump-Plane!”
As he dashes off down the corridor, he begins to sing. “Here I come to save the daaaay …”
“Why the heck did I agree to take this stupid job?” the man now known as Half-Pence groans as he trudges off behind his boss.
Two hours later, superhero and sidekick stand in a corporate boardroom in Indiana, in front of a baffled group of Carrier executives.
“You’re on notice, globalists!” Trump-Man bellows. “You’ll not toy with American workers’ lives any more! Conservatives are in control now!”
A man in a Brooks Brothers suit timidly raises his hand. “Um, sir? What’s ‘conservative’ about a single member of the Executive Branch strong-arming companies who make economic decisions based on free market factors?”
“So,” Trump-Man says, with a haughty sneer, “that’s the way you want it, eh?” He turns to his sidekick. “Half-Pence! Show them we mean business! Give them millions of dollars in tax breaks!”
Half-Pence nods confidently, then does a double take. “Wait, what?”
The man who spoke up echoes him. “Wait, what?”
“Shut up, Farley!” the CEO breaks in. “Can’t you see he’s got us right where he wants us?” He turns to Trump-Man. “Curse you, Trump-Man,” he says in a voice strangely devoid of anger. “You’ve won this time. But we’ll be back.”
“And we’ll be here!” Trump-Man says, “Ready with more taxpayer money!”
“Oh, woe,” the CEO says, “Woe is us.”
Later, on the steps of the Carrier plant, Trump-Man stands, hands on hips, basking in the cheers of the crowd. “Feels good, doesn’t it, Half-Pence?” he says. “We saved over 1,100 jobs today.”
“Just like you promised during the campaign, sir,” Half-Pence replies.
“Actually,” a man in a hard hat on the steps speaks up, “it’s more like 800 jobs.”
“What?” The superhero’s brow furrows in annoyance.
“Yeah. We got a letter from the company saying the deal with Carrier will save only 730 factory jobs in Indianapolis, plus 70 salaried positions. And 553 jobs are still moving to Monterrey, Mexico. Oh, and all 700 workers at the Huntington plant are still gonna lose their jobs.” He holds up his smartphone. “Here. It’s all in a report on the local station, WTHR. Oh, and according to Business Insider, Carrier’s announced that it’s raising prices by 5 percent.”
“Half-Pence!” Trump-man snarls, “silence that man! Hit him with a million dollar tax break!”
The sidekick leans over and whispers in his ear. “Oh … he’s one of them, eh? Not eligible for tax breaks.”
Before the man in the hard hat can speak again, a group surges forward on the steps.
“Trump-Man!” one of them calls out. “The globalists are sending my job manufacturing wiper blades from Ohio to the Philippines!”
Another speaks up. “And my paper company in Scranton is outsourcing sales to call centers in Sri Lanka!”
The crowd begins calling out, “Hairbrushes from Michigan to Indonesia!”
“Back-scratchers from Nashville to Malaysia!”
“Help us, Trump-Man!”
“Only you can fix this!”
“Half-Pence,” the crestfallen superhero says, “this may be more complicated than I thought.”