Official Stadium Rankings

New rankings! It has been a banner year for the NuckolBall staff. We hit Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Coors Field in Denver, and took Shani’s parents to Camden Yards in Baltimore to celebrate their 50th anniversary. This brings us to 14 out of 30 stadiums. So I gathered the entire staff:

  • Editor in Chief, Mike Nuckols
  • Sports Editor and Head of Baseball Operations, Jack Nuckols
  • Food Critic, Alex Nuckols
  • Arts and Literature Editor, Shani Nuckols
  • Senior Correspondents, Don and Eileen

I gave everyone ranking sheets to conduct a proper evaluation.

And it fell apart from there.

Alex calculated his totals solely based on the food, Shani’s folks have only been to 4 of the parks, and Shani…well, her sheet (as well as everyone else’s) is included at the end of the post.

The result was a hodgepodge of numbers that was completely incalculable. I did the best I could.

So, without further delay, here are our official “best of” stadium selections and then our countdown to the overall #1 park.

Best atmosphere: Busch Stadium, St. Louis Cardinals

These are fans who watch and love and honor the game of baseball. And then you combine that with a die-hard passion for their team. Damn is it a great time. In truth, I would recommend every Phillies fan should plan a visit and take notes.

Runners up: Yankees Stadium, Kauffman Stadium, PNC Park 

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Best baseball watching experience: AT&T Park, San Francisco Giants

From every single seat you can see and enjoy the game. It’s intimate and you feel amazed at how close you are to the players. The seats are angled perfectly so the game is right in front of you.

Runners up: Yankees Stadium, PNC Park 

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Best views and stadium design: PNC Park, Pittsburgh Pirates

The views of the bridges and the cliff walls and the city and the stadium itself — this park is an absolute wonder.

Runners up: AT&T Park, Camden Yards

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Best food: Great American Ball Park, Cincinnati Reds

Skyline chili cheese dogs. Nuff said.

Runners up: Citi Field, Citizen’s Bank Park, PNC Park

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And now, the rankings from 14 to 1…

#14: Rogers Center, Toronto Blue Jays

Horrible view of the game. Food is boring. Totally dated. We did see a naked guy in his hotel room, though. And you can see the CN Tower.

#13: Citi Field, New York Mets

Really nice stadium. Great food. Odd crowd. Boring team, but starting to get more interesting.

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#12: Dodgers Stadium, Los Angeles Dodgers

The history and mystique and weather and glamour carry this team and the experience. But as stadiums go, Dodgers Stadium is kinda weak.

#11: Nationals Park, Washington Nationals

The was our first park and none of us were happy with our rankings or evaluation. This clearly needs to be a 2018 outing with our Senior Correspondents.

#10: Coors Field, Colorado Rockies

View of the mountains and a nice stadium (although with some design flaws). Food sucks. The crowd is happy as hell to be at the ballgame, but I’m not sure they really follow the team.

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#9: Progressive Field, Cleveland Indians

This park is comfortable. You can see the entire park from your seat so kids can explore. Dollar dogs. Decent crowd. Street parking.

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#8: Citizen’s Bank Park, Philadelphia Phillies

I think this park got hit with familiarity bias. The food is great (cheesesteaks and crab fries), a crowd that’s into the game, a gorgeous park. But for whatever reason, the numbers came back low. So I’m actually embarrassed that this is in our bottom half.

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#7: Yankees Stadium, New York Yankees

Highly disputed internally — but for all its flaws:

  • A Yankees crowd is like no other
  • The subway ride to the park is one of the greater experiences in the world
  • We have some serious Yankee bias

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#6: Kaufmann Stadium, Kansas City Royals

By FAR the best scoreboard in the sport. Terrific, raucous crowd. Food is bleh. Some seats kinda suck. View from the stadium is underrated.

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#5: Busch Stadium, St. Louis Cardinals

The best fans in the game, bar none. The view of the arch. Mediocre food and some basic stadium design flaws.

#4: Great American Ballpark, Cincinnati Reds

Shocker pick for #4 — but our scores put it way up there in the rankings. This park has 2 things going for it:

  1. A crowd that is awesome even when their team is not
  2. Skyline chili dogs

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#3: Camden Yards, Baltimore Orioles

The temple of baseball. A glorious place to sit and watch a game. Intimate and grand at the same time. Put it on your bucket list.

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#2: AT&T Park, San Francisco Giants

Gorgeous stadium that feels tiny. Right in the heart of a glorious city. Garlic fries and Ghirardelli sundaes. Some criticize the Silicon Valley crown, but wait until the relief pitchers warm up and tell me it isn’t fun as hell.

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#1: PNC Park, Pittsburgh Pirates

The views, the stadium, the crowd, the vibe, the pot roast nachos. You’re not in a stadium, you’re participating in some kind of transcendent art. Go to this park. Go to this park. GO TO THIS PARK.

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AND…as promised, here are the official score sheets from the NuckolBall staff.

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Packing Perfection

If you’re looking for a two-day, one night backpacking trip – this is the perfect option. But be warned…day one is 6.5 miles and climbs 1945 feet of total elevation.

Overall Run/Beecher Ridge

 

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If you’re looking for a companion, this is the perfect candidate. He is an experienced packer, in great physical shape, makes good decisions, and is terrific fun to hang out with.

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This is the perfect reaction when you reach the Matthews Arm trail and you realize it’s all downhill from there.

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This is the perfect spot to refill your water. (Note: don’t listen to your dad when he says you can do better. You’ll end up doing an extra 2 miles that day just to come back to this spot.)

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This is the perfect spot to overlook the Shenandoah Valley.

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This is the perfect camp site. Note the view. Also note that when it gets dark, you can see a sky stuffed with stars above and a dark valley stuffed with blinking fireflies below.

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This is the perfect meal after you’ve packed 8.4 miles/2465 feet of elevation in a single day.

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This is the perfect tent. The top  half is open screen, so you see the sky and shapes of trees above you. You hear owls hooting. You feel the breeze. You can lay there with your son and sort all your friends and family into Harry Potter houses.

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This is the perfect place to stop for a break at the end of your second day.

This is the perfect place to stop for victory burgers, which should absolutely be your tradition after you come out of the woods after a packing trip. (Horseshoe Curve Restaurant, Bluemont, VA)

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This is the perfect mix for your ride home. Alex put it together. Two notes about your ride home.

  1. I would recommend taking the route that avoids Washington DC. It’s an extra half hour, but it takes you on windy roads through the mountains of Virginia.
  2. Be cautious listening to this mix on those roads with that boy after doing this packing trip. The joy you feel will be overwhelming. It will be so thick inside you that it creates a physical pressure pushing at the top of your chest.

OK…here’s the official Harry Potter sorting.

Our immediate family

Mike Gryffindor
Alex Ravenclaw
Shani Ravenclaw
Jack Gryffindor
Pop-pop Ravenclaw
Grandma Gryffindor
Grampa Harry Ravenclaw
Grandma Mary Hufflepuff
Uncle Chris Slytherin
Aunt Annie Ravenclaw
Tucker Hufflepuff
Brinda Ravenclaw
Neave Slytherin
Uncle Bob Ravenclaw
Aunt Joan Ravenclaw
Uncle Coddy Hufflepuff
Aunt Mary Ravenclaw
Max Hufflepuff
Sam Ravenclaw
My mom Gryffindor

Ramblers

Chief Hufflepuff
Hal Hufflepuff
Dave Slytherin
Ben Gryffindor
Skinny Hufflepuff
Spider Ravenclaw

West Coast Friends

Reef Ravenclaw
Corbin Hufflepuff
Wade Slytherin
Frank Gryffindor
Budzik Hufflepuff

Cast of Friends

Rachel Slytherin
Ross Ravenclaw
Monica Gryffindor
Chandler Slytherin
Joey Gryffindor
Phoebe Hufflepuff

Avengers

Captain America Gryffindor (textbook)
Iron Man Slytherin
Black Widow Slytherin
Hawkeye Slytherin
Thor Gryffindor
Hulk Ravenclaw
Vision Ravenclaw
Falcon Gryffindor
Scarlet Witch Slytherin
Quicksilver Hufflepuff
Spiderman Gryffindor

Simpsons

Bart Slytherin
Marge Gryffindor
Lisa Ravenclaw
Maggie Hufflepuff
Homer Squib

 

A beautiful woman and an old maid come to my rescue

This blogpost is about my family reunion. I considered sharing it privately, but then it occurred to me that my family makes up 40% of the audience. So…come along with me to Lincolnton, Georgia and the Nuckols Family Reunion. (Or if you don’t care about my family reunion, I totally understand if you bail on this post.)

It was 750 miles. Shani, Alex, and I hit the road with a stop in Durham to see friends and do some hiking. We arrived the next day at my Aunt Helen’s massive manor – home base for the reunion. There was hugging, eating, catching up. Alex disappeared with his cousins. We lined up for a huge buffet with roast beef and mashed potatoes and grilled jalepeno peppers wrapped in bacon.

My cousin, Max, had bought 100 bucks in fireworks from “Three Fingered Freddy’s” on the South Carolina border, and he set them off in the driveway while kids zipped around on scooters and parents fretted about safety.

We migrated to my Aunt Margo’s house where my Uncle Coddy broke out his guitar. I love his songs, but it struck me as a little sad that it was only him singing. Coddy, Margo, and my father used to play together in the 60s as The Nuckols Trio. They had a regular song list that was a mainstay of reunions when I was a kid. My dad hadn’t even brought his guitar along, so it was just Coddy – which was still pretty fantastic.

The next morning, my Aunt Mary offered to host breakfast at the house she was staying at, but by the time we made it there they were packing up to move to Aunt Helen’s house. So we all migrated with them and bumbled around in Helen’s huge family room.

And I’m going to stop here and make a confession: I was feeling really off at this point. I struggle sometimes because I get so insanely excited for things and then have trouble when reality doesn’t line up. That was the case here.

“Shani, I want to run out and try and buy a new bike chain.”

“Now?”

“Yeah, there’s not that much going on and…”

“Oh,” she said. “OK. I’ll come with you.”

She saw what was going on with me. She always does. She probably saw it coming before we ever left New Jersey.

So here’s the deal…these reunions have shifted. Some kind of tipping point has been reached and it has changed the composition and the cadence. I ascribe this to two main factors:

1) We’ve grown

Long gone are the days when we could all stay in a single house in Albany like we did when I was a kid. Now we’re spread across 10 different houses. When we gather for a meal, we fill up nine 12-foot folding tables. It’s overwhelming to me. I find myself faced with 40+ people that I want to catch up with and only a few days to pull it off. I’m hopping from one conversation to the next like I’m speed dating, trying to check off all the relatives from a giant to-do list.

2) We’ve reproduced

Me and most of my cousins now have kids of our own. Which means the place is littered with rug-rats. Everyone (myself included) is constantly being pulled away to deal with pleading for another can of soda or screaming from fire ant bites.

In truth, it’s not just one reunion. Each family has siblings and kids having their own individual reunion. And all that together makes up our extended family reunion.

Shani and I talked all this out on our drive.

We got back to the Baldwins and there were a few folks milling around. My niece, Brinda, was there and someone suggested a game of Old Maid, which is my opinion is about the lamest card game there is.

My opinion has since been revised.

The game was intensely awesome. It was filled with bluffing, insults, jeering. The tension was thick and wonderful. 10-year-old Brinda was in her glory playing with eight adults. The game was so fun it actually drew a crowd.

Dinner was a buffet of leftovers and people just sort of sat where they could find room. I ended up around a small table swapping stories with my cousins about nightmare stays in motels.

Shani and I slipped out to go to the Kites and within 30 minutes everyone seemed to have the same idea. My Aunt Helen wanted to hear a new song my Uncle Coddy had written, so he broke out his guitar for the second night in a row. Soon everyone was grabbing chairs from all over the house to form a huge circle around the living room. Coddy played a few originals, and then without saying anything he went into the sing-a-long repertoire. The floor in the center was suddenly filled with kids as we sang The Fox, Eddie-Cucha-Cacha-Camma, Tom Dooley, Winkin’ Blinkin’ and Nod.

Then my Aunt Margo was singing.

As I have travelled all over this land
There is just one sad thing that I find
When the wide road calls you must leave friends and all
Leaving a song behind
For a while
Leaving a song behind

Aunt Margo has a husky alto voice that I believe to be the universal voice of warm, smiling aunts everywhere. She was singing the first verse of “One for the Money” which is the song that The Nuckols Trio always closed with.

She went into the chorus….

One for the money

And from the room, the voices of my father and Uncle Coddy answered…

Sing for a penny

Two for the show

Any song that we know

Three to make ready

The wide road is pretty

And four to go

It’s been good to know ya’

And four to go

We’ve a long way to go

And I was crying. My family was stuffed into a huge ring. I saw Alex cuddled on Shani’s lap.

Then came the second verse. Oh, that verse. The second verse is and has always been the fundamental tenant of my family. It is literally one of the core lessons of my life.

Some value money and some value fame
Some value women and wine
But a song and a friend ‘round each turn of the bend
Are the riches I’d rather were mine
Every time
Riches I’d rather were mine

Family reunions are funny things. On one side, they are about the past. You are repeating something you did as a kid. Family reunions are some of my brightest, best memories from childhood. Your family is who you are – so these reunions were central to how I thought about myself.

But at the same time, reunions are about the passing of time. You’re checking in and seeing what has changed since the last reunion.

It’s weird. And it’s wonderful once your wife and your niece help you get your head out of your ass.

The final verse goes like this…(try and hear it in your mind as a husky alto)

When I am gone may this song linger on
And its echo fall soft on your ear
May your riches increase and you all live in peace
And your happiness grow every year
My friends
Happiness grow every year

 

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Jack, Shani, and the Green Folder that Ruined Christmas

I will first draw your attention to the change in title. For this episode, we are NuckolBRAWL. And for this NuckolBrawl tale, I bring you back to Christmas morning of 2016. The family is in the living room, around the tree, taking turns opening presents. Things are joyful and sweet. Shani has just unwrapped the scarf that Alex knit her.

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Suddenly, a realization strikes Jack Nuckols:

“Wait! I’ve got presents!”

On the last day of school before holiday break, Jack and his two friends had gone downtown to buy presents. Jack spent the afternoon and evening out with his pals getting gifts. They even went to dinner at the Chinese place when they were done. I thought it was such a nice idea. I was proud of him. The thought of it warmed my heart.

So back to Christmas morning…

“Wait! I’ve got presents!”

Jack grabbed his backpack and began rummaging around inside it.

“I didn’t wrap anything, but that’s OK, right? Hang on…this is for…”

He pulled out a small cellophane bag and peeked inside.

“Oh wait! That’s my egg roll. OK…here we go.”

He pulled out gifts for each of us:

  • For Alex, he bought a stuffed purple penguin. Alex snatched it a gave it a snuggle
  • For me, a bottle of hot sauce with a skull key chain
  • For Shani…

Oh no.

Oh dear God, no.

I stared in horror.

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You could feel the floor crumbling away beneath the entire room. It was like a sand castle slurped away by a wave.

Jack had given his mother a green folder as her holiday gift. It had cost him 99 cents at the most – his egg roll had cost him more. It was a gift of monumental thoughtlessness.

When it comes to things like this, I have an internal debate. Do you let it go and forego the drama to follow? Do you laugh it off and let Christmas go on.

Shani had no such debate. She retreated to our bedroom and a fog of gloom descended upon the world. Jack grew sullen and withdrawn.

And with that, Christmas was ruined.

But could it be salvaged?

Read on…

Could this man save Christmas?

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I made the first attempt. I went up to our room and consoled Shani. I talked to Jack and told him how badly he’d hurt his mother’s feelings. I went back and forth like the moderator for disarmament talks between warring countries. I finally got Jack to go up to our room and talk to Shani.

Two minutes later he came storming back downstairs.

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Could these two save Christmas?

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An hour later, Shani came back downstairs. She sat on the couch in a sad slump. I called up to Jack and asked him to come down for a second. I said that had to show him something. As soon as he was halfway down the steps…

“Dad and I are going for a walk.”

“Bye.”

Alex and I grabbed our coats and shot out the door.

We lapped the block slowly. Fifteen minutes later, we came back and poked out heads in. Shani and Jack were sitting silently on opposite ends of the couch. Both were curled up like pillbugs.

“Let’s do another lap.”

“Good idea.”

We did two laps this time. The final result…

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Could the Mulvihills save Christmas?

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That afternoon, the Mulvihills came over for happy hour. It’s a tradition our families share each year. We get together on Christmas for happy hour and then go out for Chinese food.

I figured that Shani couldn’t possibly keep up the gloom with friends over. She’d have to put on a good face for guests.

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Dead wrong.

 

Could the George Michael save Christmas?

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After a semi-stilted happy hour, we headed to Philly for dinner. In past years we’d done Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean BBQ. This year we took it up a notch and rented a private karaoke room in Chinatown.

So picture the scene. 4 adults (one of them emitting a fog of gloom). 4 tweens (2 boys, 2 girls). It’s not a recipe for uninhibited fun.

We were doing some lame signing when suddenly our phones lit up with news alerts: George Michael had died.

Next thing we knew, the moms were belting out Careless Whisper, Father Figure, and more. This was a moment of unity. George Michael had gone so suddenly. Who has time to dwell on bad things? Live to the moment! Enjoy each other now!

But the tweens just looked at us with disdain and embarrassment. Before long we were struggling to keep the fun going.

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Then things went from bad to worse. I looked to see that “Hello” by Adele was next. My thought: worst possible song. It’s slow-paced and hard to sing. Plus it’s sad as hell. What could be a worse choice?

The first verse came out as a mumbled dirge. Then the music swelled into the chorus and suddenly…

“Hello from the OUT SIIIIIIIIDDDE! I must HAVE CALLED A THOUSAND TIIIIIIMES!”

Everyone was belting it out. All the kids. Both moms. My friend Geoff. People were smiling and laughing at each other. Everyone was letting it roar at full volume. I looked across the room and Shani and Jack were singing into the same microphone with all their might. More sushi arrived. We put the song on again and performed an encore. Our waitress brought a tray heavy with Sapporo beers and cans of Sprite.

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Yes folks, the green folder was forgotten. Adele had saved Christmas.

 

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The Sex Talk

Aaaaand…The Sex Talk.

Before I get into the nitty-gritty, I’m gonna make a little PSA. I wrote a book (that twice came astonishingly close getting published) where pedophilia is a key theme. I did a shitload of research about it, and here is a proven fact:

The more you talk about sex with your kids, the less likely they are to be the victims of a sexual predator.

Pedophiles play on shame and secrets. When you avoid talking about sex with your kids, you make it a dark, shameful, secret topic. And that’s part of what pedophiles use to groom, lure, and hide their actions.

Now…this isn’t a proven fact, but I think it’s also safe to say that having the Sex Talk is always awkward. There is not a natural time to comfortably slide right into the topic. You have to just go for it. That has been my experience.

The Sex Talk with Jack

The trigger? The NFL.

Every damn commercial break has a spot for Viagra, Cialis, or both. We would sit through 30 seconds of semi-awkward and pregnant silence every time we watched football. Finally, he asked…

“Dad? What is erectile dysfunction anyways?”

I gave him the obvious response:

“Erectile dysfunction is something your father HAS NEVER EVER EXPERIENCED!”

But that night we were both reading in my bed and I went for it.

“OK, remember when you asked about erectile dysfunction?”

“Yeah.”

“OK, here’s the deal…”

I gave him the whole story. I said penis. I said vagina. I said a whole lot of words like that. I plowed through the whole damn thing.

Here are some points that stand out:

  • I was talking theoretical. “A man and a woman...” But Jack was going to the personal and individual. His questions weren’t about “a man and a woman”, his questions were about me and Shani. It added an extra layer of awkward to the conversation.
  • About halfway through the conversation, he interrupted me to say…“So you’ve done this twice.” And I had to back up and explain it in a different way.
  • Jack then interrupted me again to say: “Wait a minute. So you do this, regularly?” The idea disturbed him deeply.

His concluding thought…

“Sounds gross.”

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The Sex Talk with Alex

I did it last summer (Alex was 10). We went on an overnight backpacking trip, and on the drive to the trailhead I went for it.

“So we’re gonna have a talk about something, and it might be weird, but we’re still gonna do it even if it is weird and let’s do it. Right? That make sense? Let’s do this.”

“OK,” he said, not really knowing what the hell I was talking about.

Alex didn’t ask any questions, so I kept rambling on and on in a nervous babble stream. I explain sex. Pedophiles. Gay and straight. I must have gone for 25 minutes. Finally I stopped and let the silence set in.

“Well,” he said. “That was awkward.”

“How much of that did you already know?”

“Most of it.”

“Did Jack tell you?”

“No.”

“Who?”

“I have my sources.”

And that was pretty much that.

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Since then we’ve had more talks. All of them brought up by me. All of them awkward and forced.

“So…you’re going to be in the locker room with older boys. You know that…”

“I know, I know!”

“Not that you’re sexually active yet, but you know that when a girl says no…”

“Stop it! God!”

Actually, it’s gotten to the point, where this is the reaction I get whenever I bring up the subject. Which I see as a very good sign.

 

 

 

 

The Problem with NuckolBall

 

So…NuckolBall. There’s a problem. Check this out…

Alex and I drove up to Binghamton last weekend for the premiere of Guardians of the Galaxy 2. On the drive up, we had the most incredible damn conversation. I still can’t believe we went there. It was bold and unexpected and would make a wild story about parenting. A perfect post for NuckolBall.

But Alex asked me not to talk about it with anybody.

See, the fact is, I’ve been struggling for relevance here. There used to be an obvious tension and wonder in my life as a dad. But life has gone from helping my boys figure shit out, to sitting on the sidelines as they figure shit out for themselves. I’m not so much in the know.

This is full on Parenting Phase 2. The transition is over; it’s here.

It’s nice in a lot of ways. Shani and I have way more time on our hands. We slip out to grab a drink together all the time now. I’m in better shape than I’ve been in 10 years. Shani’s leading the South Jersey chapter of Moms Demand Action.

But when it comes to NuckoBall, it’s been a little tough. So…I’m going to try and embrace the situation. Adapt. Which means get ready for some real-deal Parenting Phase 2 posts.

Loosely outlining, I expect to write about:

  • The Sex Talk
  • Jack, Shani, and the Green Folder that Ruined Christmas
  • Things We Screwed Up in Phase One

I’ll come up with some more stuff as I go. But stick with me. This is some funny stuff.

 

A few facts

Fact 1: It rained today.

Fact 2: The rain resulted in Jack’s baseball game being cancelled.

Fact 3: Shani and I took advantage of this surprise opening to ditch the kids and make it over to the Tonewood Brewery. We got seats at the bar and ordered 2 Feugos, which are vaguely bitter and vaguely citrusy. They are delicious in my book and highly drinkable.

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Fact 4: Shani and I have been married for 17+ years.

Fact 5: I am legitimately crazy about my wife. I can confidently say that I’m more in love with her now than I have ever been. We have so much damn fun together. Our day to day life is genuinely romantic. Shani is 46 years old, and I honestly think she is more beautiful today than she’s ever seemed to me.

Fact 6: We returned home in time to catch the Yankees game, where they beat the Pirates.

Fact 7: I watched the game with Jack.

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Fact 8: All is right in the world.

 

 

 

 

The End of the Season

Alex and I were hanging out the other weekend and I mentioned it was almost April.

“Blah,” he said. “It’s almost time for me not to like you.”

“What?” I asked.

“Baseball season. All you and Jack want to do is sit and watch boring baseball. All you talk about. This guy did blah blah blah. That guy is blah blah. And oh my gosh he blah blah blah.”

And it occurred to me: where most people’s lives have four seasons, my life has only two.

  • Alex Season (starts after the World Series and runs through opening day)
  • Jack Season (which corresponds with baseball season)

And I’ll tell ya’ – this Alex Season has been a magical one. We’ve gone hiking almost every weekend, chattering away about managing friendships, countries we’d like to go to, how he’s planning to deal with peer pressure about drugs (he brought this up). We’ve snuggled on the couch and re-watched most of the Marvel movies, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars re-watching. On a snow day we got through both Terminator 1 and 2 (although we skipped the sex scene in 1).

Jack has no interest in movies (unless its bedtime). He usually turns down an invitation to go hiking because he’d rather hang with his friends. And when he does hike with us, he spends a lot of time making sure we all know he hikes faster than Alex.

But in a little more than a week…

Jack Season! We will watch the opening day game together (Yanks vs Rays). We’ll talk highlights. We’ll plot out our trips for the year (Baltimore plus a couple other contenders).

Can’t wait.

But I’m sure Alex and I will slip in a hike or two.

Here are some highlight shots from Alex Season.

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Found an old springhouse
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Tea Kettle Falls in Arkansas
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Pyramid Rock (North Jersey)
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Blueberry Hill Trail
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Robert Frost Trail in MA
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Old Italian gardens on the Leiper-Smedley Trail

 

A Tale of Two Attitudes

I begin with ALEX.

He is at an incredible age. The perfect age. He is young enough so he wants to hang out with me all the time. He is old enough to take hiking and have great conversations. We’ve gone hiking together every weekend the last month and spent hours talking about countries he wants to visit. We snuggle on the couch and are making our way through Arrow on Netflix.

But there is a downside.

When a show ends he reaches over and clamps onto me like a dog with a bone. “You’re not leaving!” he squeals. He’s like a human bear trap. CLANK!

He will follow me from room to room. If I go in the kitchen, within minutes he is sitting in there with me. He chatters away and asks he if he can help me chop vegetables.

I’ll announce, “I’m going to the gym” and he’ll immediately say, “no you’re not.” Then he’ll spend the next 15 minutes asking why I need to go and can’t I stay with him.

At least once a day during the weekend I’ll snap at him: “ALEX, for God’s sakes! Give me some space!”

But for the most part, I’m reveling in it. I’m trying to take as much as I can get, because I know what will happen when he gets a little older…

Which bring me to JACK.

First off, Jack has stopped using consonants when he speaks to me or Shani. He mumbles under his breath like those “buds buds” guys selling drugs on the street.

I’ll be reading on the couch. He’ll come down in a hoodie (always a hoodie).

“Dallesco.”

This translates to: “Dad, let’s go.”

I often don’t hear him.

“Cummahdalesco.” (“Come on, Dad. Let’s go.”)

And when the boy is gone, he is gone. I’ll drop him at the gym where town basketball games are played. Doesn’t matter if he’s playing or not. He’ll run the scoreboard or do whatever. He and his hoodied crew will go downtown and buy bulk candy at CVS. They’ll play football at the middle school. They’ll wander to each other’s houses, flop onto the couches, turn on the TV, and then all stare at their phones.

He’s got a group of about 10 boys that join up, separate, and re-join in various groups in various places. They’re like a weird group of amoeba forming and reforming in different configurations. Sometimes I’ll come home and find them draped on my couches.

Cayooorerapieceorsumthee?” (“Can you order a pizza or something?”)

But he’s a clever boy. He’s lost his power to speak, but he’s still finding ways to communicate with me. Last weekend, I drove him to the gym. He turned on the radio to my classic rock station and started signing along with Pink Floyd.

“Aha!” I thought. He’s trying to send me a message through this radio. He’s showing me he knows the words to classic rock and he’s doing it for my approval. There’s still a human in there trying to communicate! He’s in there!

I got to the basketball gym and he hopped out of the car before I’d even fully stopped.

“Jack!” I called after him.

He took a step back towards the car.

“Can you come back for a second?”

“What?”

“Come back. Sit.” He got in, completely impatient.

“What?”

It was my turn to not communicate.

“What do you want, dad?”

I sat there.

“Dad! What! I need to…Oh…”

He smiled.

“Thank you for the ride.”

He was off.

“Love you!” I called.

“Love you too!”

Then he was gone.

2017 Geo Bee

FLASHBACK: 1 YEAR AGO. THE 2016 GEOGRAPHY BEE.

Alex was one of 12 kids in the Geo Bee last year. I thought he had a chance to win in. The boy is good at geography, regularly reads an Atlas for fun, traces maps and puts them up on his walls. And he studied some by taking geography quizzes online.

One by one, kids got eliminated until it was down to just two kids — one of them being Alex. At this point they go into the final round. His competition was a girl named Britney B, and Britney B was trouble. Britney had come in second the previous year and had apparently been preparing to win with incredible drive. Alex was against a deadly foe – and it was an epic battle.

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Only two competitors remain.

Alex and Britney went mono-e-mono for 17 rounds. It was 40 edge-of-your-seat minutes before Britney finally knocked Alex out by naming the country south of Libya (Chad). Britney deserved it and she won.

Alex came off the stage. His face was all red and his expression was bizarre. That’s when I realized he was holding back tears. He was trying to make his way back to me and Shani, but his class mobbed him. Twenty-six fourth graders surrounded him, unsure of what to do. They muttered “good job, Alex” and other nice stuff. They were all a bit somber.

But one kid knew exactly what to do. Max L, and autistic boy in Alex’s class, burst through the crowd and sacked Alex with a bear hug. He literally lifted Alex off the ground.

Max L’s hug had the effect of turning on a magnet surrounded by iron filings. Instantly the entire class, all 26 of them, clicked together into a group hug with Alex at the center.

That is a moment I don’t think I’ll ever forget.

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Love from the 4th grade.
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Hug from Shani. Note Alex’s red ear.

NOW…imagine a super villain from a movie. Lex Luthor defeated. Sauron vanquished. The villain slinks back to their lair with a heart set on revenge. The villain plots, rebuilds, smolders, grows stronger…

In this movie, the super villain is Alex.

He would email me worksheets and blank maps to print at work. He spent his birthday money on geography quiz books. He downloaded geography trivia apps. He found learning modules online. He drove me, Jack, and Shani nuts making us quiz him on the rivers of Asia and the capitols of Africa.

FADE OUT OF TRAINING MONTAGE.

RESOLVE TO: GYMNASIUM, PRESENT DAY. KIDS AND PARENTS FILL THE SPACE. TWELVE CHILDREN ARE LINED UP ALONG A TABLE ON STAGE. IT IS THE 2017 GEOGRAPHY BEE. ALEX NUCKOLS IS AMONG THE 12 KIDS.

CUT TO AUDIENCE. MIKE NUCKOLS WATCHES WITHOUT TALKING TO ANYONE. THERE ARE VISIBLE SWEAT STAINS AROUND BOTH ARMPITS.

Look, I’m not gonna spend too much time talking about myself, but if you know me and think I’m a nice guy, you are mistaken. I am in that audience and I am sizing up each of the other 11 kids with nothing but malice in my heart.

“Shani — who is that kid? Is he in accelerated math? No? Good. Very good.”

I’m also checking out parents. I know some of these competitive bastards and I wouldn’t put it past ’em to try and mouth the answers to their kid. Well, not on my watch, Tiger Mom!

Oh, I should also mention that among the competition is Alex’s best friend, Aidan. Actually, we’re gonna take a few minutes to talk about Aidan.

I will begin by saying: I love the boy. Aidan is articulate, polite, imaginative, truly kind, and a semi-professional pain in the ass.

When Aidan sleeps over, he and Alex bed down surrounded by stuffed animals and special blankets — and neither are the least bit self-conscious about it. We have a wooden hockey stick that is only allowed in the basement. Aidan brings it upstairs every time he comes over. Aidan will lead Alex to my tool bench, drape cords and power tools all over both of them, and they will play space cops for hours. I bought an expensive set of 2-way radios for canoe trips and I hid them in the basement so my kids wouldn’t play with them. Aidan found them in less than 20 minutes and he didn’t even know I had them.

In truth, I find Aidan and Alex’s friendship somewhat magical. They spend a lot of time laughing hysterically together and they’re a little bit like a comedy team.

However…at that moment, my favorite thing about Aidan was that I was pretty sure he wouldn’t beat Alex in the Geo Bee. I knew Aidan had only started studying once he qualified and I know his parents are super cool (which means no risk he’s being force-fed geography for weeks).

So the Geo Bee starts. Alex breezed through the first couple rounds, and I was pretty sure by that point that there were no ringers I had to worry about. All the kids were smart and pretty good at geography, but none of them seemed anywhere near Alex’s super villain level of knowledge.

One by one I watched them get knocked out, nodding with satisfaction.

And through all this, Aidan was hanging in there. He would crow out his answers loudly and he got every one right, except some obscure question about a country in Africa I’d never even heard of. Aidan obviously didn’t know, so he joyfully called out: ITALY!

But I’ll be damned if the two finalists weren’t Alex and Aidan.

Three questions. Whoever does better takes the crown.

Question 1: The newly-established Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument is off the coast of which US state?

No brainer, Hawaii. Alex would definitely get that. But when they called on him…

“California.”

And my heart sunk. Crumbled. I pictured myself congratulating Aidan and pretending to mean it. Then Aidan (bless his heart) called out his answer:

“California.”

And the boy was suddenly welcome in my home again.

Question 2: The endangered snow leopard can be found in this Asian country?

Both boys said Russia and got that wrong too.

Question 3: This country, north of Nicaragua, is home to the Patuca River?

Alex held up his answer and I could tell he knew it was right:

“Honduras.”

Aidan’s answer?

“ITALY!”

Let’s go to the video…

Here is a photo of the still best friends…

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And finally, here is a shot of the well-deserving, 2017 Geo Bee Champion:

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