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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Diving on the Big Stage

 

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Alex’s goal for the AAU Diving Championships in Orlando:

“Not come in last.”

It turned out to be a wild and emotional experience.

Alex and Shani had flown down to Orlando on Sunday. I flew in Monday night and after a bunch of flight delays, I slithered into the hotel room around 1 in the morning. Shani and I caught up in whispers as Alex slept in the other bed. When we all woke up, we had a very hyper boy on our hands. Alex basically did somersaults on the bed for an hour before we finally headed over to the pool. The schedule was as follows:

  • 7-8 AM: Warm ups
  • 8:30: First round of competition. All divers would do 5 dives.
  • 3:30: Finals. Here is where the top 12 divers from round one would compete for the championships.

And here was the good news: There were only 12 kids in Alex’s age group. So right away we knew that Alex would make the finals. But there was a little bad news: it made his odds of coming in last a lot higher. It made me all the more nervous as the first round started.

To describe round 1, I’d like to take you dive by dive. I’d like to take you through each round and tell you how Alex scored and build up the tension. But I can’t do any of that – because watching this event was completely incomprehensible. Check out this pool…

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There were 14 diving boards and three different competitions all going on at the same time. There were three announcers calling out names and scores, and I could only catch bits of words. Plus, the whole building was a giant aluminum shed that funneled all the splashes, yells, boards, and chattering into a huge echoing roar. It wasn’t until Alex’s third dive that a woman next to us told us to go on the website: cleanentries.com. Check this out…

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It gave us a running scoreboard and ranked the kids in real time. So I mostly watched round 1 on my phone.

But when the dust settled, Alex had done 3 good dives (4s and 5s), 1 lousy dive (3s), and one really nice dive (6s). We knew Alex wasn’t last, but we didn’t really know much else. At 2:00 we got back at the pool for the finals. I wandered over to the scoreboard. And get this…because here’s where things get good.

Alex was now in 4th place. They kept 3 dives from round 1 and somehow this re-scoring had worked in Alex’s favor. This boy wasn’t just going for next to last place – he was in it.

The basic picture was this:

  • There were 2 kids way ahead of Alex
  • There was 1 kid barely ahead of Alex
  • There were 4 kids right behind Alex

For the finals, each kid did only 2 dives. I figured I could actually track this thing and be more in the moment. Because if things went well, Alex had a real shot at the bronze. Here’s my inane scoring sheet.

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Alex was 5th in the diving order. I watched the first 4 kids and tracked them accordingly to where Alex had to be. The kid right before Alex was the one who was in 3rd place, and to my great joy the kid did a mediocre dive. If Alex could execute, he could move up to 3rd place.

Alex stepped up to the board…

Time out.

I’m going to stop and let you know what we didn’t know at the time. See, diving rules are confusing. Alex had warmed up the past hour to get up and do his 1.5 inward. But when the boy got up on that board and heard the announcer say… 

“Now doing a reverse tuck…Alex Nuckols.”

Alex and his coach had screwed up and suddenly Alex learns that he is doing a completely different dive. A major curve ball had been thrown to my boy. But Shani and I didn’t know any of this at the time. All we knew was…

Alex stepped up to the board…

And bombed.

The dive was awful. Legs splayed, body all wrong, big awkward splash. I could hear a few of the scores as they called them out. “2.5…2…2.5…”.

I closed my notebook.

I could see that Alex was in bad shape when he got out of the pool. I watched him go over to his coach. I watched him prepare for his next dive. Even from across the giant pool, I could see that he was crying. Five minutes later, he was coming back up on the board for his second and final dive. He later told me he was still crying as he climbed the ladder.

He went up on that board, took a deep breath and…

THAT is what it looks like to nail a dive. I heard the muffled announcer call out: “7…6.5…7…7.5…”

Look, I’ve seen Alex win a shitload of dive meets and anyone stupid enough to ask me about Alex will hear me brag and beam about him. I’ve had so many proud moments with this sport – but that dive blew them all away. He collected himself and he executed. Damn if I’m not choked up right now as I write about that dive. My boy. Hell yes. Hell, period. Yes, period.

OK…so the meet ends and you also have to realize that Alex has no idea of the score. None. Didn’t know he was 4th going in. Didn’t know anyone else’s scores. All he knew was that he bombed his dive and that his goal was to not come in last. Suddenly, there he was up in the stands in a towel and his speedo and our boy just dove into his momma’s arms. I snuck some shots.

The instant the competition ended, he went right for Shani and he sobbed for a solid 3 minutes.

That’s when I told him he came in 5th.

Turns out a lot of kids cracked under the pressure of the finals. That combined with Alex nailing his second dive and he’d ended up 5th out of 12. Here he is up on the podium. Sweet, right?

I will end with a warning. Watch out for Alex Nuckols next year. If I were those 2 kids at the top of the podium who won by 40+ points, I would start practicing right away. Because let me make you aware of Alex’s history as a diver.

Historical Example 1:
Alex’s first two years of diving he was just OK and only kind of into it. He placed 11th and then 6th at the South Jersey Diving Association (SJDA) finals.
Starting the following season, he has placed first in every meet he’s been in except one.
Historical Example 2:
This winter Alex started competing in AAU and USA meets events against a whole new caliber of competition. In his first few meets he was next to last and his best total score was 99.
The final meet of the season he scored 169.4 and shocked his coach by qualifying for the national championship in Orlando.

His goal this year was to not come in last.

I suspect he will be setting his sights a bit higher for next year.

Backpacker Battle Royale: Many photos and 1 video

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

The Face-off Begins
The Face-off Begins

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.

Break
Break time
Break time. Again.
Break time. Again.
And another break.
And another break.
Walking stick (spotted during a break)
Walking stick (spotted during a break)
Spotted during a break
Centipede (spotted during a break)

Advantage: Alex

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.

Not enough breakfast.
Not enough breakfast.
Our boy is bonked.
Our boy is bonked.

Advantage: Mike

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?”

“Yes.”

“That’s marijuana.”

“Really?”

“Does it make you want to try it?”

“No.”

Hillbillies and Hippies
Hillbillies and Hippies (hard to see)

Advantage: Mike

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.

Shot of Alex packing shirtless.
Shot of Alex packing shirtless.
Censored to protect women from too much lust.
Shot of Mike has been censored to protect women from too much lust.

Advantage: Alex

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.”

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Advantage: TIE

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.”

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Advantage: Alex

Who won? You decide.

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End of the road

Here are a few more photos.

First overlook of the Delaware Water Gap
First overlook of the Delaware Water Gap
Sweaty boys climbing Mount Minsi
Sweaty boys climbing Mount Minsi
Made it to the top (took FOREVER)
Made it to the top (took FOREVER)
Setting up the tent
Setting up the tent

Hanging in the tent.

We were tired as hell, but talked for 2 hours before we fell asleep. "It's like a sleepover," said Alex.
We were tired as hell, but talked for 2 hours before we fell asleep. “It’s like a sleepover,” said Alex.
Overlook.
Overlook.
Happy.
Happy.
Victory burgers.
Victory burgers.

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.

To Balk or not to Balk

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.

Except one.

These may be may favorite photos of all time:

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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.

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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.

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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.