In episode 001 of CMD+SPACE, Merlin Mann talks about “Cranking,” a moving piece he wrote and published to 43 Folders. He refered to it as the best thing he’s written, and a sort of coda for the site.
It got me thinking about “We Ride The Polar Express and It Stinks,” a post I wrote for Parenting Magazine’s blog The Parenting Post several years ago. It’s the best thing I’ve ever written [1. “Best” is the wrong word. I should say “favorite,” as I don’t believe anything I’ve written is really good.] and, not long after its publication, I resigned from my gig with Parenting. I guess you just know when you’ve done a thing as well as you’re ever going to do that thing.
Here’s We Ride The Polar Express and It Stinks, a true story.
We all know the story of the Polar Express. A bunch of kids take a train to the North Pole, where they drink hot chocolate, receive a bell and have a wonderful time (I’m paraphrasing, of course). Several cities and towns in America that have trains lying around stage their own interpretation of the book each December. It’s an enjoyable, family-friendly event with hot-chocolate burns to the face, lots of waiting, skinned noses and chins, terrified children, snot, tears, more waiting and very unhappy adults. And it’s only $75! Hooray!
Let’s relive this precious memory that I will treasure in my heart forever.
The train station is about 20 to 25 minutes from our house, so we left early, mostly because we only have a general understanding of where it actually is. After a little driving around we found one of the designated parking lots. Of course, I had forgotten to stop at an ATM first so a few tense moments passed until I found a bank. It was totally my fault, and sort of set the tone for the day.
Back at the lot, we parked the car and walked toward the waiting train. The conductor was running around looking like Sir Topem Hatt, and extravagantly dressed elves held ornate, color-coded scepters high in the air, designed to gather our attention and lead us to our respective train cars. We had “Blue Frosty,” so we followed the blue elf. It was all quite charming and the enormous train hissed and made all sorts of nostalgic noises.
Once inside, the spell was broken.
A member of the wait staff was carrying a very large tray of paper cups filled to the brim with steaming hot chocolate. He musn’t have been in the holiday mood: The things I heard him muttering under his breath in Spanish (I appreciate your attempt to disguise what you were saying, sir, but some of us can understand you) weren’t exactly “jolly.” We grabbed four hot chocolates from him, and my wife poured one into a sippy cup for William. It was burning hot, so we let it sit with the lid off to cool. (Remember that, it’ll be important later.)
The train started to roll, and oh, it was like a Norman Rockwell painting come to life. We saw people’s backyards, abandoned cars, winterized fishing boats, stacks of lobster traps…real “Christmas in New England” kinds of things. About ten minutes into it, William, who is a year old and not keen on sitting still for more than 90 seconds at a time, began to cry and whine and squirm around. We gave him a bag of pretzels, and 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 must have been surprised or something, because he immediately pulled back from the tilted cup, which continued to pour warm hot chocolate all over his face and clothing. Now he’s screaming bloody murder and I’m REALLY in the holiday spirit.
This is when Grace announces that she doesn’t want her hot chocolate, presumably because she thinks it hurts children.
Finally, the announcement comes over the PA: “If you look to your right, boys and girls, you’ll see the North Pole!” All the adults immediately look at one another and ask, “Which way is right on a train?” which sparks an intense discussion about the relative position of the engine and the conductor. “No, it doesn’t work like a boat,” some say. “It depends on which way the conductor is facing,” others say. “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…”
I want to shout, “Hello! Christmas Magic here! Childhood memories under construction! There are 4- and 5-year-olds on the cusp of disbelief sitting right next to you! How about preserving some of the adorable innocence? My daughter is about to burst because she actually believes that a 25-minute train ride through Sandwich, Massachusetts, ends at the North Pole! Who cares which way is right?!? 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. Inside, an older woman, dressed as Mrs. Claus, is knitting in a rocking chair next to a wood-burning stove as you’d expect of Mrs. Claus. Grace 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 at him as if he 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’s refusal to acknowledge Santa. I was right.
On the way back to the train, William took a wicked digger and landed square oh his face, cutting his nose, lip and chin. Now he’s screaming and bloody. It was at that very moment that I decided to open my mouth and say something so intelligent, so sensitive, so insightful that it would be remembered in family lore forever.
“It was a mistake to bring William,” I said.
My wife, who is a good person and who doesn’t have 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 forget to go to the ATM, and you pour hot chocolate on your child, and someone swears at you in Spanish, and you realize that your 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 hold on to each other, lean in close, look past the lobster traps, abandoned cars and trashy backyards and whisper, “Look, honey. The North Pole.”