Location: The Appalachian Trail
Distance: 6.5 miles to the Kirkridge Shelter and then back the next day
Elevation: 1549 feet
The competitors: Alex and Mike
The question: Who will come out as the superior backpacker?
Your narrator: Mike Nuckols
Category 1: Pacing Yourself
For better or worse, I approach life as a to-do list. Whether it’s eating a meal or doing my Christmas shopping, I go full force towards my goal until I collapse. Backpacking is no different.
But Alex takes breaks. A lot of them. Whenever he says, “let’s rest at the next rock,” I find myself thinking: “Come on! Let’s keep pushing!” But then I rest and find that I needed a break as well. We’ll sit on a nice rock, eat some trail mix, and chatter away. Plus we see some cool stuff while we’re hanging out.
That’s really the way to do it, and if it weren’t for Alex I would push through the entire 6.5 miles – only stopping when I’m ready to drop.
Category 2: Eating habits
Shani has imparted terrific eating habits on my boys. They eat until they’re full and then they stop.
On the other hand, I generally eat like I’m headed to the electric chair. I never stop until my plate is clean. I never stop when I’m full. I stop when I’m stuffed. This is usually a bad thing – unless you’re burning through 5-6 thousand calories a day.
At camp breakfast, Alex didn’t finish his oatmeal and just nibbled a few dried apples. We got a half mile before the boy bonked. We had to sit for 30 minutes while he devoured half a pound of trail mix and a pound of dried cherries.
Category 3: Being comfortable around “freaky weird people”
Shelters on the AT are first-come first-serve. Last year we had the shelter to ourselves. When I told Alex we might have to share it this time, he told me:
“I am NOT staying with freaky weird people!”
When we reached the shelter there were 3 guys from Virginia who were trekking from New Jersey to North Carolina. Alex and I set up a tent at a clearing nearby. After our tent was set up, we went to the shelter to cook hot dogs over the fire, but it started pouring rain. Minutes later, 4 local high-school kids (total hippies) rushed in from their campsite in a nearby field. We were all huddled under the shelter as the storm passed.
“Smell that, Alex?”
“Does it make you want to try it?”
Category 4: Going Shirtless
So it was hot. Hot and humid as hell. So Alex decided to pack shirtless – and eventually, so did I.
Alex is CUT. He swims an hour a day and dives an hour a day. Me, I cut a very different form. Thank God there weren’t a lot of ladies along the trail who would have lost control at the sight of my daddy abs.
Category 5: Telling the people we love how we feel about them
We got into great conversations on the trail and at the campsite.
- Alex described how he felt about his friends. “What I like about my grade is that no one is really popular. Everyone is the same and we’re all friends.”
- He ranked every type of dried fruit he’d ever eaten. “And cherries are the best, of course.”
- He went through the entire Egyptian creation mythos. “Then Set tempted him into a coffin and then connected him with the underworld.”
But at least once an hour, one of us would just blurt out: “I’m having so much fun – I love you so much! Thanks for doing this.”
We got into a long conversation about telling people that we love them. I’m really good at this (sometimes to the point where it becomes uncomfortable). Alex is also good about it. Although he doesn’t say it to Jack “because that wouldn’t be brotherly.”
Category 6: How to date Taylor Swift
It was a 2-hour car ride to get to the trailhead and 2 hours back the next day. Alex had Taylor Swift albums loaded up and we listened to them the entire time while he sang along in the back seat.
He told me, at length, what the expectations were for dating Taylor Swift. In fact, he let me know: “If you don’t get at least 2 songs written about you, that’s a fail.”
Who won? You decide.
Here are a few more photos.
Finally…the video. This is at Eureka Springs. We had run out of water 2 miles earlier. We stopped here for 30 minutes, filled up on water, waded in the cool water. A terrific stop.
And because I love you (see what I did there?) – a bonus video. I give you…the chicken walk.
So…when it comes to 9-and-under boys diving in South Jersey, Alex dominates. In fact, for the past 2 years he has come in first in every single event he’s entered.
These may be may favorite photos of all time:
Last year, Alex placed 4th in the 3-meter championships. As you can see, he was not happy with the results.
Now…to make proper excuses, our pool does not have a 3-meter board, so Alex had only 2 practices at that height all summer. I’m certain the kids who placed ahead of him belonged to pools that had a 3-meter board.
This year is different. First off, Alex took dive lessons over the winter that included work on a 3-meter. Second, Alex had at least 6 practices this summer on a 3-meter board. But there is a downside to all that training.
Alex was lined up to do:
- Forward dive tuck (degree of difficulty – 1.4)
- Inward reverse tuck (degree of difficulty – 1.3)
- Reverse dive tuck (degree of difficulty – 1.8)
- Reverse somersault (degree of difficulty – 1.7) Also known as the “reverse sommy“
- Forward one and a half (degree of difficulty – 1.5)
The degree of difficulty (DD) is a major factor in your total score. Whatever scores the judges give you is multiplied by your DD. Alex’s dives were at a much higher DD than any other diver, which gave him a tremendous advantage. It means that even with average scores, Alex will crush every other diver.
Which meant that realistically, there are only 2 ways Alex could lose.
The first issue is Alex’s kryptonite. But Shani made sure we took care of that.
So with that out of the way, it came down to the real threat: the balk.
Think back to when you were a kid and think back to jumping off the high dive. Think about how that felt. Getting up there and looking down at the water. That tingle in your belly as you psyched yourself up to jump. Were you scared? I sure was.
Ok, so now imagine getting up there to do a flip. Scarier? How about a back flip? Crazy, right? Well, how about you go off the board forward, and at the same time throw yourself into a back flip?
That’s the reverse sommy, and I can tell you that Alex has only once done it without balking. A balk is when you hesitate once you start your approach to the dive. If you balk, you get no points for your dive.
If Alex balked on the reverse sommy – zero points – and we’ve got a sad face again. It was his 4th dive. So here we go.
- First dive – nice. Scored 4s and 5s.
- Second dive – nice. 4s and 5s.
- Third dive – gorgeous – and this with a 1.8 DD.
But then came the reverse sommy, and here’s where it gets heartbreaking. As a parent, it’s hard to figure out how to handle when your kid doesn’t succeed. And you can say all the right words about bravery and doing your best…but they don’t care. You’ve got devastation on your hands. I’m never sure how to handle…
Awww…I’m just messing with you. Alex nailed it.
No sign of a balk at all. And check this out…here’s dive #5.
And finally…here’s Alex on the winner’s podium. First place.
Final note: Check out that kid to the right. That kid came in second – and a week from Saturday, he will go up against Alex in the 1-meter championships. He’s a gorgeous diver and such a sweet kid.
With any luck, the little shit will break his ankle over the next 10 days.
I was in San Francisco for work this week (and hit a Giants game). I had dinner with one of my best friends, Reef. Reef asked me how things were going and I went into Jack going to camp and how good I thought it was because he’s been dealing with social pressure and blah blah blah.
So Reef says to me:
“It’s funny how much more you talk about Jack than you do about Alex.”
Pow. Leveled me. It was one of those observations that:
- You were completely unaware of
- Gets you right between the eyes because its so undeniably dead on
Actually, Reef has a talent for that kind of observation. Especially when he’s on drugs. But to stay on subject…
I stammered a bit and then launched into an hour monologue all about Alex to assuage my guilt. But I also pointed out a few things:
- Jack provides more drama. Every stage is new to me, so I’m more scared of it. I don’t know how to handle it. And more drama means a better story.
- Alex is just easier. He’s good at everything; everyone adores him.
In all honesty, Alex is the font of happiness for the whole family. Jack’s becoming a pre-teen, which means he slams his door and rants with indignation when we don’t believe him when he says he scrubbed his armpits when he took a shower, even though he reeks of BO and is obviously lying.
Shani reacts fantastically to whatever emotion Jack is feeling. Those two are like voodoo dolls of each other. If Jack is sulking, Shani starts sulking as well. When Jack gets angry, she matches him with equal rage.
Me, I’ve started a new job that is infinitely harder than my old job. I’m constantly distracted and less in the moment than I should be.
Then there’s Alex. He goes to diving practice and chatters away with all the kids at the pool. He’s invited to play with a different friend each day. He reads. He brushes his teeth. He goes to bed without a fight. He sleeps late. His armpits don’t stink yet.
Sometimes I feel like I’m using him to cheer myself up. I’ll lie down next to him on the couch and he’ll wrap his arms around my head and say, “I love you so much, you’re the best daddy, mmmmmm.”
If I could bottle those snuggles and sell them I’d put every therapist in the world out of business overnight.
So I feel bad about the fact that I talk more and write more about Jack.
But don’t worry…I know just how to cheer myself up.
I’m sorry to report that Josh the lizard died this weekend.
You may recall Alex’s quest to purchase a lizard in posts from last year — some readers even threw Alex some paying work that helped contribute to the purchase.
Shani noticed he wasn’t moving Friday night. Alex reached in, picked him up, and the lizard was floppy and clearly dead. I wrapped him in a bag. Alex proceeded to absolutely sob uncontrollably for 30 minutes. The boy doesn’t mess around with his sadness.
The next day we buried Josh in the backyard — here is the gravestone Alex made.
It is worth noting that he wrote “I love you” a second time at the bottom of the stone where it would be underground and “Josh could read it.” After the burial, Jack and Alex went out a little later and I saw that both of them were kneeling by the grave.
I don’t think there will be another lizard in Alex’s life, but who knows. The big heartbreaker quote for me was when he told me the next day: “Lizards are supposed to live 8-10 years, so I expected to have Josh until I was 16.”
Oh — at Alex’s insistence, we also went to church on Sunday. Although we screwed up the times and missed the service. So the three of us spent 10 minutes praying, and then spent the another 10 minutes having an incredible conversation about religion.
We begin our Tiger Tale with this:
I had a free night and asked the hotel if they had a map. How classy, right?
Then we go to this:
I got it for $30 off a scalper. Great seats – field level, 20 rows back off 1st base. I was feeling good, and then…
That moment when you first see the stadium. That’s a big deal to me. It’s genuinely awe-inspiring. There it was – with giant statues of tigers and huge bats. The big lights and sheer scope of it. My bouncy step got that much bouncier.
I went through, got to my seat and check this out…
That’s Miguel Cabrerra not 50 feet away from me. Dynamite, right? OK…look closer. The field seats at Comerica are on a low pitch, which means it’s really hard to see. People’s heads in front of you block your view. A true design flaw if you ask me. But then again, people’s heads in my way was secondary to…
OK, time out. An important lesson for non-baseball fans. This is a cardinal rule at a ballpark.
Do not get up from your seat in the middle of an at-bat. Same goes for returning to your seat. Wait for the at-bat to finish and THEN you can get up/sit down.
Why? Because people (like ME!) are trying to watch the damn game! And for some baffling reason, Tiger’s fans had no idea this rule existed. I was stunned. And getting irrationally furious.
Oh, and the other thing that was happening – EVERYONE was taking selfies. I’ve never seen so many selfies in my life. It was like a selfie flashmob. In fact, the mother in front of me took a selfie of herself and her little girl. Then the little girl started demanding and whining that her mother delete the selfie. And when mom refused, the little girl started fake crying.
I felt like I was losing my mind. After a few innings, I sort of staggered away feeling frazzled. I bought a hot dog and took the escalator up to a higher deck.
Now…let’s look at this photo and tell me what you see?
It’s the shot from my new seat. In fact, as I entered the section, I found 3 guys standing at the back waiting for the at-bat to end before returning to my seat. But back to the photo, because it contains 4 things I loved seeing.
- The kid at the bottom left is wearing a baseball glove. It’s hard to see. Just at the bottom of the frame. He was hoping to catch a pop up and carefully watching the game for his chance
- In the center, a kid is on his dad’s lap and they are keeping score. The dad is teaching his son how to log a game.
- Top of the frame is the view of downtown Detroit – a view I couldn’t see at all from section 118.
- Far right? Oh yeah – that is a real deal baseball mutant. She and her mate were chattering away about the game and having a great time. Pros. She was eating soft tacos and snuffling them down like an anteater. I got her in mid-snort.
What was also nice about this section was the view of the field. I could see what was going on. No heads in my way.
So now…I could give excuses. I had an hour drive back to my hotel and I had to get up at 6 and run an all day workshop. High profile for a big client. And the game was out of reach for the Tigers (down 12-3) and every pitcher just kept walking batters and then they’d switch to another pitcher who would warm up and then walk the next guy.
And then…and then…oh God. OK.
I left. I left before the end of the game. I did. I did that. Here’s a shot of the sunset over the city I shot on my way out.
So…not sure if it’s even valid considering what I just admitted, but my review of Comerica Park is:
- GORGEOUS stadium. Grand and majestic. It feels like you’re entering the Roman Coliseum about to watch something enormous take place.
- Fans suck in the spendy seats. Fans are solid in higher decks. Plus the seats are better.
- Food is nothing special.
This weekend concluded the spring baseball season for Jack, and it was a rough one at the plate for our hero. There was a regression in his approach where at-bats were filled with tentative swings, attempts to draw walks, and head shakes as he shuffled back to the dugout following a called strike three.
Game after game slid by without a hit. Midway through the season, after another game where he went 0-for-3, Jack rode beside me in the car in a fragile silence. I tried the “get ’em next time” peppy-talk and got nothing. After a few more minutes, I spoke:
“What’s the matter, bub? You look real sad.”
That was all it took. It was like I had nudged a tall tower of blocks. He spoke back, his voice high-pitched with misery.
“I’m just sitting here realizing how bad I am at baseball.”
He fell into inconsolable tears, weeping into his hand.
“Why does the person who loves it the most have to be the one who is the worst at it?”
At this point I was crying too (I do that). I told him he was young and had years ahead of him. I told him that baseball was the hardest sport in the world. I told him he was brave. I tried all the regular parent bullshit you say, but he just kept right on bawlin’. It sucked.
The season kept on and Jack kept doing nothing at the plate. He looked lost up there. But then, with just a few weeks left in the season, Shani and I got an email from Jack’s coach.
Wanted to let you know that I’m pitching Jack for an inning tonight. Please don’t tell him beforehand.
So as Shani and I arrived at the field, Jack was off to the side warming up. He came back to the dugout and mouthed to us: “I’m pitching.” And boy oh boy was there a lot of emotion he was trying to cover up behind a cool face.
Next inning, out he went.
So Jack is a lefty and he’s small. He went out there and shot these slow, lefty loopers right in for gentle strikes. The inning went:
- Groundout to the pitcher
- Groundout to first base
- Groundout to the pitcher
1-2-3 inning. Wowzers! I’d been expecting a walkfest mess, but it went great.
The next game, Jack warmed up again, was sent out, and put down another 1-2-3 inning. As Jack came back to the dugout, the coach came over to him:
“Jack, think you can handle another inning?”
OK…so a second inning. That is significant. One inning is giving a kid a chance to pitch. Two innings means a move into the stable of regulars who pitch for the team. Plus, this was the top of the order for a good team.
- First batter: groundout to the pitcher
- Second batter: line drive double
- Third batter…
The third batter was a boy named Thomas who is one of the best hitters in the league. I frantically texted Shani to tell her who Jack was facing.
“Crapass” was her response.
But Jack pumped in a few of those loopy slowpokers and…
- Groundout to the pitcher
Jack walked the next guy (men on 1st and 3rd), and then struck out the next batter.
OK, so to say I had a different kid on my hands from that day forward is a major understatement. “Self esteem” is an overused term, I think, but in this case it was like you could see Jack’s newly-glowing self-esteen floating over him like he was pulling around a balloon.
He took to lecturing Alex on how to sequence pitches. He used his prize money from the essay contest to buy a pitch-back and spent hours in the backyard announcing games with himself. Shani asked him if he was happy after getting out of the last inning:
“Yeah, I was happy, but when you walk off the mound you have to look like it was no big deal. That’s how you do it, Mom.”
He kept pitching in every game following and continued to get hitters (good hitters) out.
“I have a 0.00 ERA still,” he informed me.
The team was the underdog heading into a double-elimination playoffs. Jack led the game on the mound and looked shaky. It was raining and the ball slipped from his hand several times. He hit a batter (not hard) and walked another. Then a double ended his perfect ERA. They ended up losing that game.
Then the next game, with the season on the line, Jack took the mound in the 2nd inning and the loopy leftshot was consistently off the plate.
- Hit batter
As he threw you could see him withering like a weed. After every pitch he would look imploring at the coach, begging with his eyes to be pulled.
When Jack finally came off the mound, he was anything but stone-faced. The team lost and was eliminated by the playoffs.
So a tough season? The team never really got into a groove and Jack didn’t either. But as I look back, I’m filled with gratitude and good feelings.
I love Jack’s coach. He has made it clear that he does not draft based on baseball skill – he drafts to get the nicest kids he can. And sure, lots of coaches say they do that, but this coach really does.
I love the coach’s wife. She is a mainstay in the stands; she beams and smiles through the entire game. She notices every kid’s success and revels in it.
I love sitting with rational parents. Drafting kids based on niceness means the parents are terrific. I’m not much for chit-chat, but I’ve really enjoyed sitting among them.
And above all, I love being a dad. Shani is in the stands next to me. Alex is running the snack bar or begging for me to buy him candy. The pace of a baseball game makes me sit back and realize that this is it. This is fatherhood. These are the moments.
So thanks to everyone for a great season. And beware, Jack has not let up on that pitch back. He will be taking the mound this fall.
In honor of the end of a fantastic little league season, my friend Kari White and I created some graphics that help define the experience.