Friday Mailbag: A Christmas tradition, defending Agatha Christie, common ground on EV, and our shifting political landscape
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MINOT, N.D. — Decorating for Christmas might be my favorite family tradition.
In my family, it's a very specific tradition. Right after Thanksgiving we go and buy a tree (we're a real tree family). Then we order Pizza Hut (it has to be that specific restaurant, which we don't patronize any other time of the year). We put on the lights and ornaments while listening to my grandmother's holiday records (including "I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas" by the inimitable Yogi Yorgesson).
Then we watch "A Christmas Story," which still makes us laugh even though we can recite most of the dialog by memory.
But maybe my favorite part is signing the door.
The home my family lives in, which is the home I grew up in, has a loft space where we've always stored the Christmas decorations. The littlest member of the family gets the job of going up into the crawl space to hand things down. In 1990, the year we first moved to North Dakota from Alaska, that was me. While I was up there, I took a pen and put my name and date on the inside of the door to the space.
I've been logging Port family holidays on that door ever since — 31 years and counting — and now it's crowded, too, with the signatures of other family and friends who have spent the holiday with us. Last year, after Thanksgiving, I came down with COVID-19 and spent the bulk of the holiday season fighting for my life in the hospital. I still signed the door, though, and I'm grateful I'm still around to sign it with my family this year.
My daughter tells me that if we run out of space on that little door we should remove it, frame it, and start signing a new one. I agree.
Now that I've shared with you that bit of personal holiday nostalgia, it's time for this week's mailbag questions. If you'd like to send me correspondence about my columns or podcasts, fire it off to email@example.com. Submissions used in this column may be edited for clarity and brevity.
In response to my column about a Fargo middle schooler making a stink about an Agatha Christie novel she was assigned by her teacher, Elizabeth writes: "Please do not go after a child in an unkind, mean, and bullying manner, just because she is expressing how this Agatha Christie's poem makes her feel. And, please do not chastise with your mean words, the parent. The Public School administration should be the one to listen to concerns that parents may have. In addition, you have no idea what or how the mother used this matter to make it a teaching moment for her daughter. You do not have the privilege to hurt people, especially children for speaking up for themselves and their pain, real pain that they are feeling. You could have written your critique in a way as to not insult and be respectful of their opinion and agree to disagree. Your words are mean and hurtful toward them, especially the young student, who is not a ' tot.' By the way I have never read Agatha Christie's material. I have made it a point not to read anything she wrote. I do not like her writing. It is possible that now you will go after me for this. I hope you do so with kind words."
I don't think anything I wrote in that column was mean. It was absolutely dismissive, perhaps to the point of being belittling, but I'm not sure belittlement is an unfair reaction to people who choose to be offended before they even try to understand.
We're talking about a child who became incensed at a word used in an assigned reading then, enabled by her mother, launched a campaign to censor the work aimed at beleaguered school officials who were quick to accommodate this misbegotten complaint because, like so many of their counterparts across the nation, they've been battered into near-total submission by populist outrage mobs.
I'm not hurting anyone by being critical of this silliness. I'm under no obligation to respect the opinion of people who seek to discredit one of the most popular works of fiction in the English language while simultaneously admitting they haven't even bothered to read it. "I do not like her writing," Elizbeth, who is under the impression that this novel is a poem, tells us of Christie's work, just after she tells us she has "made it a point not to read anything she wrote."
All due respect to Elizabeth, but that is idiotic. As idiotic as the child and her mother's objections to the language in Christie's novel.
We, all of us, from journalists and television producers to school principals and teachers, should stop elevating the opinions of idiots.
How's that for mean?
In response to my column about the practicality of the electric vehicles certain politicians are hawking these days, Brad writes: "It was interesting reading your article on EVs in cold-weather climates. Here’s a true story from two years ago. Our Twin Cities-based daughter and son-in-law were gifted a Tesla from his aunt. They headed to Fargo from Minneapolis in their Tesla for my wife’s birthday party, leaving with a full charge. Temps were well below zero when they left around eight that morning and were around -15 here that night. Normally they’d be here easily by noon. That didn’t happen, and they finally arrived around 6 PM that evening. They made it to the Clearwater exit and had to stop and recharge; there’s a fast-charge station there and that took about 30 minutes for another full charge. From that point on, they had to stop four more times to recharge in order to keep their car going, and never were able to achieve a full charge anywhere. When they reached Moorhead, they had two (two!!!) miles of charge left in their car. They found a (regular) charging station somewhere in Moorhead and stopped there. Our son drove over and picked them up to get to the birthday party. They left their Tesla charging overnight in Moorhead and retrieved it the following day. They left on Sunday by which time temps moderated and they were able to make it back home with only three recharging stops. Anyone who tries to argue the positive logistics of driving EVs in cold-weather climates for any significant distance is proclaiming their utter ignorance. Having worked my entire career as an engineer for an electric utility, I simply have to shake my head.
Like so many things in our society, electric vehicles have become a dividing line. We're obliged, depending on our political affiliations, to either love them or despise them, which is unfortunate because it's not really an either-or situation.
Personally, I love electric vehicles. I can't wait to own one. That said, buying one isn't practical for me. I have a big family, and we like to go camping, so I need a big SUV I can pack everyone into. Those are in short supply in the EV market, and those available are expensive. Also, the range issues, not to mention the way cold weather impacts that range, is troubling to me. I don't want a holiday road trip to turn into a marathon because we have to stop over and over again to charge like Brad's daughter and her husband.
One day I think the electric vehicle manufacturers will figure that problem out, but that day isn't today, and it should be perfectly reasonable to stick with gas-powered vehicles until that day arrives. Unfortunately, some seem intent on making that an untenable choice. Public policy hostile to fossil fuels are driving up the price of fuel even as other polices distort the EV market with enormous subsidies and mandates.
California Governor Gavin Newsome has called for gas-powered cars to be phased out in the next 15 years, and that, frankly, seems nuts to me. They may well be phased out, one day, but politicians putting their fingers on the scale to try and force that to happen, and on their timeline, seems like a good way to hurt a lot of people by forcing them to use vehicles that don't work as well for them.
Again, I think electric vehicles are cool, and they'll find their market. The politicians should butt out.
Patrick writes, in response to my column about Thomas Starks, the seemingly unrepentant many who attacked Sen. John Hoeven's office with an ax: "Over the past couple years I’ve sensed a shift in your writings. You were at one time a staunch partisan Republican and what I considered part of the problem that now plagues our society. That problem being one’s inability to objectively see the faults and merits of both sides of political debate. I don’t know what has prompted your shift, but most of your recent writings seem to be heavy on pragmatism and light on partisan idealism. Maybe the Republican party, err I mean the Trump party has moved away from you. Maybe your serious bout with Covid has impacted your views, I don’t know. Regardless of the reasons for the change, I sincerely thank you. We need more people advocating fairness and decency, like you have in recent times."
"Port, you've changed," is a thing I've heard a lot over the last year, and I consistently rebut such claims by pointing that I haven't. Not really.
I've never been the partisan demagogue Patrick describes. I think if you go back through my writing you'll find that I've never shied away from criticizing Republicans. I've always tried to put principle over any sort of loyalty to a given candidate or political party. What's changed, from my point of view, is the Republican party. I find the shift toward Trumpy populism, and this obsession with the culture wars that permeates American politics, to be repugnant. Because of that shift, I find myself being critical of Republicans a lot more often than I was in the past.
We should remember that the political parties aren't monoliths. They're organisms, in a way. They change, over time, and have a tendency to reflect their environments. The Democratic Party of 2021 is hardly the Democratic Party of the 1960s when it elected John F. Kennedy, a man who is almost worshipped in some liberal circles but, in reality, was quite moderate. On fiscal issues, he was downright conservative. Reagan, too, was far more moderate than many today remember.
I started this answer by saying I haven't changed, and that's not entirely true. When I started my writing career 18 years ago I was 23 years old. I'm 41 now, and a different person because I've lived a lot of life since then. We all change over time. But philosophically, I'm about where I've always been.
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org .