We ride the Polar Express and it stinks: A cautionary tale

My grandfather was immensely proud of his Kodak rotary slide projector.

We’d visit him in Oneida, New York knowing that, before the day ended, we’d be sat in front of the white vinyl projection screen looking at photos of my grandparents in San Diego. And Hawaii. And Cape Cod. Memories preserved and shared with what was the latest technology.

Years later, my family vacations, birthday parties and other notable milestones were punctuated by the blazing spotlight on my father’s 8mm camera. He shot everything, observing much of my childhood through a two-inch viewfinder.

Now that I’m a parent, the viewfinder is larger, the camera is smaller and the urge to capture and share is greater than either of those men would ever imagine.

I’m not sure that’s a good thing. Here’s how I came to that realization.

In Chris Van Allsburg’s modern Christmas classic The Polar Express, some children ride a train to the North Pole, drink hot chocolate, receive a bell and enjoy a wonderful time. Some American towns that still have trains lying around stage their own interpretation of the book each December. It’s an enjoyable, family-friendly tradition that includes hot-chocolate burns to the face, waiting, skinned noses and chins, more waiting, terrified children, snot, tears and cranky adults. And it’s only $75!

I grabbed a fully-charged iPhone complete with three photography apps, two video editing apps and a travel-sized, articulated tripod mount. Bring on the Christmas. We piled into the minivan.

Once we arrived, we left the car and walked toward the train. The conductor was running about, looking like Sir Topem Hatt. Extravagantly dressed elves held ornate, colored scepters high in the air, giggling and waving, as the enormous train hissed and made all sorts of nostalgic noises.

“Kids, stop,” I said, posing them next to the train.


I cropped and applied a filter.


“Just a second.”

Share >; Tweet


“We’re getting on.”

Inside the train, a waiter held a large tray of paper cups filled with steaming hot chocolate. We took four and my wife poured one into a sippy cup for our son, William. It was quite hot, so we let it sit with the lid off to cool.

The train started to roll as I mounted my iPhone on the tripod with my Glif, ready to record a Norman Rockwell painting come to life. My touchscreen glowed with scenes of people’s backyards, abandoned cars, winterized fishing boats, stacks of lobster traps…real “Christmas in New England” stuff.

Ten minutes in, William, who was a year old and opposed to sitting still, began to cry. I gave him a bag of pretzels as my wife tested the hot chocolate. It was just pleasantly warm, so she put the lid on and offered it to him. He stuck it in his mouth and but immediately pulled back from the tilted cup, which continued to pour warm hot chocolate all over his face and clothing.



Instagram >; snappy caption

Facebook >; sad face

Finally, there’s an announcement. “If you look to your right, boys and girls, you’ll see the North Pole!”

Every adult produces a phone. Commands are issued throughout the train. “Look here! Suzie, look at me.” “Hold him up so I can see his face.” “Hold on, let me send this.” “Is there Wi-Fi in this train?”

Others discuss the relative position of the engine and the conductor. “He said to the right. Does it work like a boat?” “It depends on which way the conductor is facing,” someone says. “But the conductor can MOVE,” the answer comes back. “Well, not when he’s actually driving the train,” one adult offers. “Actually,” says another, “you don’t technically DRIVE a train.” “Ugh, why doesn’t this thing have Wi-Fi?”

That’s when I saw it. The children were ignoring the adults. They weren’t looking at screens, at Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or YouTube. They were looking at the wonder just outside the train.

The adults were missing it completely.

I wanted to shout, “Hello! Christmas Magic here! Childhood memories under construction! There are 8- and 9-year-olds on the cusp of disbelief sitting right next to you! How about preserving the magic? My daughter is about to implode because she actually believes that a 25-minute train ride through Sandwich, Massachusetts, ends at the North Pole! Who cares how many “Likes” you just got? Just look out the window and say, ‘Oh, look, honey! The North Pole!'”

We exit the train and it’s very cute. The station is decorated nicely, and teenagers are running around dressed as elves, looking busy. An older woman, dressed as Mrs. Claus, is contentedly knitting in a rocking chair next to a wood-burning stove.

My daughter refuses to approach her. She refuses to approach Rudolph. Ditto the elves and other “helpers.” There’s a cute tree set up with a train at its base, which William promptly de-rails. One elf is taking the names of passing children to check if they’re on the Nice List. Grace, of course, blows him off when he asks her for her name. My wife tells him what it is, and he announces to his workers that Grace is on the Nice List and that they should begin preparing presents for her immediately, which they do. It’s very cute.

Grace glares as if they kicked her dog.

At this point we were waiting (and waiting and waiting) in the long Santa line. William was screaming and writhing around and I knew that the entire thing would culminate in my children refusing to acknowledge Santa. I was right.

On the way back to the train, I posed my daughter for a video I could post to Path. William, whom I should be watching, took a wicked digger and landed square on his face, cutting his nose, lip and chin. Now he’s screaming and bloody. It was at that very moment that I opened my mouth and say something so thoughtful, so sensitive, so insightful that it will be remembered in family lore forever.

“I’ll put my phone away.”

My wife, who is a good person without a vindictive bone in her body, shot me a look that said, “One more word and I will throw you underneath this train.”

We had a quiet train ride back to Massachusetts (until William fell off of his chair and started screaming again), and a quiet car ride back home. That’s why I love the holidays: It’s a time for families to come together, set their expectations unrealistically high, and fantasize about a holiday experience that is perfectly wonderful. As snowy and sparkly as Rockefeller Center on Christmas Eve, and as heartwarming and uplifting as the final musical number in the Albert Finney version of A Christmas Carol. Then, you pour hot chocolate on your child, you piss off your wife and the best part of the day passes buy as you tweet the rest.

Finally, you realize that life is not a scene from Currier and Ives, but a portrait of four people doing the best they can. All you can do, really, is put the phone away, lean in close, look past the lobster traps, abandoned cars and trashy backyards and whisper, “Look, honey. The North Pole.”