Friday, June 17, 2016

The Upbringing of a Trophy Kid

Portrait of an average kid. 

One thing that's always bugged me is the label "trophy kid." 

"Trophy kid" is a slur used by older generations to demean millennials. The slur implies that because the millennial was handed unearned participation trophies and because he was mollycoddled by his parents (who protected his fragile self-esteem from ever being bruised by the harsh Darwinian world), the millennial enters the real world with a sense of entitlement, unrealistic expectations, and a bloated ego. 

This label contrasts with the characters of the Baby Boomer generation. They'd have us believe that, in Caucasian America's Golden Age, they grew up in a brutal Hunger Games-like era, where they chopped their own firewood, ran marathons to school, and benefited from a more callous dog-eat-dog world that formed them into hardened, upstanding, non-consumeristic individuals. An ideal upbringing, according to this line of thinking, might be gotten in Stalingrad in 1943, or from eating your shoe in the Great Depression. 

A life's worth of participation trophies.

While visiting my parent's home, I started doing a little organizing of old stuff and came across a box of old test scores, report cards, and trophies. 

I was a trophy kid. I was awarded a participation trophy after every baseball, hockey, and football season. But the trophies did nothing to make me feel exceptional. I always knew my place. Even the most mollycoddled first grader has some understanding of where he stands among his classmates. He knows who's the smartest, the dumbest, the fastest, and the slowest. Here are a few test scores and report cards: 

Thoroughly average first grade test scores that were followed every year by average scores. 

The dreaded "area of weakness" check mark.

(Two goals in eighteen games. Yikes! (But notice Walden on Wheels's character, Josh Pruyn, with zero.)

Slightly better than average SATs.

I always knew how smart I was in relation to the rest of the class. I always knew who the better athlete was. I didn't just intuit these things: there were statistics that routinely and very clearly reminded me of my position in the pecking order. Sometimes I could tell where I ranked to the percentile. 

I was constantly reminded of my averageness. This followed me throughout my whole childhood. While the advanced students were awarded honors and got to take AP classes, I did okay in second-tier classes among my fellow second-tier peers. From age six to eighteen, all of my sports teams were horrible. Virtually every season was a losing season, and my team was always among the worst in the league. I knew nothing but academic mediocrity and athletic failure. My peers beneath me certainly were aware of their lowly position and my peers above me were probably far from satisfied in the competitive school environment in which there's always someone better. My point is that awards and trophies will never give a kid a bloated sense of self esteem in an ultra-competitive environment where he's constantly reminded of his inferiority to someone else. 

All this isn't to make a statement about trophies. Kids always know who the true winners and losers are, and the trophies were as much junk to us then as they are now. Perhaps they were meaningful to the kids who were floundering as students and athletes, and, if that's the case, I think that's enough reason to keep the tradition alive.  

And this entry is neither a condemnation of nor praise for standardized testing and a competitive grading environment. Despite being reminded of my averageness nearly every day for twelve years, I felt loved by my family, liked by my friends, and encouraged by my teachers. From them I built up enough self esteem to withstand the constant reminders of my averageness. 

I suppose all I'm trying to say is that there's no such thing as a trophy kid, at least as it exists as a label for an entire generation. It is a groundless slur used in senseless generational warfare. And I think it's wrong to suggest that building self esteem in young people is something that should be frowned upon. My trophy kid generation had among the highest suicide rates in the last sixty years. Giving a low esteem kid a certificate to tack up on his wall or telling him he's better at something than he really is, in the long run, won't do him any harm. 

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Books for the 21st Century Environmentalist

Mashable has kindly published my list of recommended books for the "21st Century Environmentalist."

It's interesting to see how environmental literature has changed from decade to decade. It began with the romantics: folks like Wordsworth, Rousseau, Thoreau, Gilbert White, Muir. These guys -- often mixing poetry, philosophy, and naturalist observation -- more or less championed the goodness of nature or wilderness.

In the early 20th Century, we see folks like Muir and Roosevelt fighting for specific things, whether it be the preservation of an animal or a landscape in the form of a national park. By the middle part of the 20th Century, we got books like Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac, which depict a world that is an interconnected ecological network, in which an insecticide like DDT could have a massive impact on the whole ecosystem.

Nowadays, in the 21st Century, we're seeing books about food and food production in, say, Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and Jonathan Safron Foer's Eating Animals. There aren't as many premier environmental books calling for more wild spaces (with the exception of E.O. Wilson's recent Half Earth). Rather, we see books like Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction and Jared Diamonds Collapse, which are grim reality checks about our destructiveness as a species and our increasingly fragile planet, now challenged by overpopulation, thinning resources, and an unstable climate.

The earlier books, surprisingly, are just as readable and relevant today, as their call to embrace nature is, I think, a necessary step our society must take to surmount our much scarier environmental problems today. For a wonderful survey of all environmental writing, from its birth to its much more diverse form today, I strongly recommend American Earth, a collection of writings edited by Bill McKibben.

So what exactly is a 21st Century environmentalist? It may be a person who combines all the environmentalisms of yesteryear: someone who has the aesthetic nature-loving sensibilities of the naturalist-romantics, the desire to preserve wild places and animals in perpetuity, the understanding of a vast and complex ecological system that needs careful management, and the concern for animal welfare and the fate of our planet.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The end of the tour

Credit: David Dalton. Asheville, NC book reading at Malaprops
As publishing lore tells it, the “book tour” used to be a common tool for authors to sell and promote their books, but in recent decades publishing companies have become less eager to commit resources to a marketing strategy that has gotten increasingly less effective. 

So I was a bit surprised — and honored — when my publisher asked if I’d be interested in going on my own fifteen-city book tour for Trespassing across America.

The tour — organized and funded by my publisher — began in late April in Washington D.C., the day after my book published. It ended last week in New York City. 

On my first morning, I began with a radio “satellite tour” from my hotel landline on which I’d talk to seventeen different radio stations, one after the other, in a six-hour timespan. I was a little nervous for my first radio interview, which would air in Dallas. I was anxious to pitch my book in a compelling way. I wanted to give crisp and articulate answers while also coming across as carefree and charismatic. But by 1 p.m., with sixteen rapid-fire interviews under my belt, I was leaning back in my fake leather chair and giving answers in my final interview as comfortably as I possibly could. So, that night, when I got up in front of my first audience at the Politics and Prose book shop in Washington D.C., I felt oddly confident, even serene, like I’d already given this talk seventeen times before.

A book reading can be extremely “hit or miss.” It’s hard to predict where you’ll have a good turnout, and where no one will show up. I had about twenty people show up for my Washington D.C. event, close to fifty for my Greensboro event, and less than ten for my events in Lincoln and Omaha. What gives?

City Audience Size
Washington D.C
Durham, NC
Greensboro, NC
Asheville, NC
Denver, CO
Missoula, MT
Omaha, NE
Lincoln, NE
Aurora, NE
York, NE
Wichita, KS
Tulsa, OK
Houston, TX
Buffalo, NY

I was puzzled. I figured that all three of my events in North Carolina were hits because I had book reviews in two of those cities and a local NPR interview that aired statewide. Yet I also had good interviews published in newspapers in Lincoln and Missoula, but those events were lightly attended. I had no exposure at all in the Wichita and Tulsa press, yet they were among my best events. It was unpredictable. 

My talk, itself, hardly varied from one reading to the next. By the end of the tour, I’d subtracted about a minute’s worth of ineffective content, but the talk was more or less the same from the start of the tour to the end. 

My talk is about my Great Plains journey, broken apart into sections that are designed to evoke different emotions. The beginning, when I explain how I planned my journey, is supposed to generate excitement. When I discuss my environmental-minded motivations and describe the tar sands of Northern Alberta, I hope to bring out a feeling of sorrow and outrage. When I discuss my hike and my mistakes, I try to make the audience laugh. Lastly, I end on a note of suspense to goad the listener to buy my book.

One of the interesting things I observed is that audiences almost always respond in the exact same way. I always knew when I was going to get laughter. I knew when I was going to get nervous titters. I knew when I was going to see a little emotion in my listeners’ eyes. When I was asked if I ever felt lonely on my hiking journey, I told the story of when a coyote ran away from me and how I wanted to yell, “Come back!” This story wasn’t meant to elicit laughter, but it got laughs at every reading, and I made sure to retell it along with other material that had gone over unexpectedly well.    

While I’m not a professional speaker, I can give a few words of advice to future authors:
  1. The worst and most boring part of a book reading is the actual book reading. So don’t read! I’d read only two short passages that took up less than two minutes of speaking time.
  2. Keep the talk short (20-25 minutes) and rely more on the Q&A. 
  3. Never drink alcohol before a reading and always have a copy of your speech in hand. (I once had a century-long beer-induced brain freeze and had no way out.)

Meanwhile, the book reviews began to trickle in. I googled my name every day and found neutral-to-negative reviews from Kirkus and the LA Times, and good ones from a number of mid-sized papers, like The Buffalo News, Asheville Citizen-Times, and Greensboro News and Record. Everything about this is mostly unpleasant and emotionally exhausting. Bad reviews stick with you and hurt for a good 48 hours. The good reviews only make you hungry for more, and you end up feeling nasty pangs when they don’t come. You reach a point where you say you're never going to read a review again, good or bad. You’re terrified of the absolute lack of control you have over the whole "promoting" process and simply want to move onto your next project, where it’s just you, an adventure, and the open canvas of a fresh Word doc. 

As for my book tour talk, it never varied. The reception of it, however, did, and this reception depended on a few uncontrollable factors—namely the quality of the venue and the size of the audience. For audience size, bigger is always better. When an audience is small (like six people), it makes audience members self conscious. And because there is no one laughing around them, they don't want to be the lone, crazy laugher, so they're less willing to give in and immerse themselves in a collective emotional experience. So there I am, in front of six people, giving a talk with the same passion that I gave to a laughing and responsive audience the night before, but now all I can hear, in the spot where I normally pause for laughter, is the cappuccino machine gurgling in the background.  

These weakly-attended events can feel humiliating. I’d think about how I’d traveled hundreds of miles to go to this bookstore in order to talk about a book that I’d worked on for over two years and walked 1,700 miles for, and yet only six people show up! In Lincoln, I had three people in the audience (one of them a friend) at the 7 p.m. start time. I postponed the reading for ten minutes and about five more folks (who should be knighted and get go to heaven) trickled in. 

It’s moments like these — when your pride is wounded — that you feel gratitude for the friends who made an effort to show up (and resent those who didn’t). It’s then when you think, “I’m never doing this again!” You can’t help but wonder if it’s worth the trouble for your publishing company to spend the hundreds of dollars — on airfare, hotel, rental car, and food — to get you to one of these ill-attended stores where only half the listeners buy books anyway. 

There are other times, though, when you feel honored to be talking to a receptive audience that is interested to hear your story, thoughts, and opinions. When a talk is going well, and you know you have an audience that’s absorbed, you feel loved and appreciated. It’s then when you think that maybe suffering through the humiliation of a poorly-attended reading is worth experiencing the joys of a good one.

My Tulsa, Oklahoma event was by far my best. It was in a proper theater in the brand new Woody Guthrie Center. I had a proper stage with a big screen for my slideshow. I had a packed audience that I could only vaguely see in the dark. I had a warm light shining down on me. When I read from the script that I had just about memorized, I found myself talking more articulately. My pace was more comfortable. More natural. I took my time. I didn’t speed the talk up, as I sometimes do before non-responsive audiences. I got such good, hearty laughs that I’d often have to wait five to ten seconds to let the laughter die down. It wasn’t that I had suddenly become a better speaker. It was that the venue made the audience better, which made me better. 

Tulsa event at Woody Guthrie Center. Credit Tim Landes Jr.

Woody Guthrie Center
In Buffalo, I had to give a talk in a bookstore where there was a rhythmic and very distracting thumping noise coming from the floor above. One audience member said he thought it might be a jazzercise class. At one point, plaster fell down from the ceiling. Between the poor venue and the small audience size, my talk suffered. 

I’ve found that the quality of a talk depends largely on the “crowdly atmosphere.” A loving crowd will no doubt bring the best out of a speaker. Some speakers, I’m sure, can capture an audience of any size or temperament, but, for now, the success of my events are largely determined by these uncontrollable forces. 

I also learned that the turnout for a bookstore reading has little to do with NPR interviews and getting reviews in local newspapers. Rather, it depends largely on the bookstore’s culture and their tradition of bringing in speakers. If it’s something they commonly do, aggressively advertise, and have a routine group of people who show up, the better your turnout will likely be, regardless of how much exposure you'd gotten in the local media. 

I could complain about the long hours of travel, the radio interviews that cut into much needed nap time, or my reliance on bad airport food, but mostly I felt grateful for this rare (most likely once-in-a-lifetime) opportunity. And I felt grateful to have a publishing company (that I very much wish to please) that believes in my book

The success of a book tour is almost impossible to determine. I didn’t come close to selling enough books to pay back the expense of the tour, which probably cost several thousand dollars. (I’m guessing book tours rarely “pay off” in this way.) But the point of a tour isn’t necessarily to instantaneously sell a whole bunch of books. It’s to get the word out. It’s to get local reviews and exposure in local radio stations. It’s to get the book in the hands of folks who will write Amazon reviews, propose it to their book club, or buy another copy for a family member at Christmas. 

There are some things an author can do to to make his or her book successful. But, like a turnout for a book reading, most of a book’s success is outside of your control. After the initial publicity push, it largely depends on luck, on what’s going on in the world at the time of the book’s release, or on how passionate the publisher is about your book. So part of dealing with the turbulent emotions that come from a book’s release is just reminding yourself that you’ve written the best book you could and that the rest of it is up to something as abstract and uncontrollable as "fate." More important than the book’s initial “splash,” anyway — you remind yourself — is how it's appreciated over time.

My rental car got broken into in Houston, near the Museum of Fine Arts. My lap top bag was stolen.
 A couple of notes: (1) It wasn't a great payday for the burglars. I'd left my laptop at the hotel and I had my iPad in hand for navigational purposes. All they got was a copy of Trespassing across America, my book tour speech, and a few cords for my electrical devices. (2) When I tell this story, at least I get to say that I was out doing something cultural, and not "ordering a 5-for-5 at Arby's."

Credit: David Dalton. Friends Gavin and Michael in Asheville, NC book reading at Malaprops

Credit: David Dalton. Asheville, NC book reading at Malaprops

Sunday, April 24, 2016

NYT Op-Ed Addendum

I'm in the New York Times this morning!

My piece introduces the idea of bringing European walking rights (in which citizens are legally permitted to walk over private land) to the U.S.

If you've read the article and would like to learn more, here are a few lines and thoughts that didn't make it into the final cut.

Americans don't walk enough

This is no surprise to anyone. Our towns and cities have not been planned well and do not promote good civic, spiritual, and healthy lifestyles. Let's just focus on the healthy thing for a second: It's recommended that folks should be walking 10,000 steps a day (an Amish person gets 18,000 steps a day, I believe), but we Americans only walk an average of 5,117 steps a day, far fewer than the averages of the other countries the researchers studied, including Australia (9,695), Switzerland (9,650), and Japan (7,168). [1]

The United States of Private Land

By my count, America is 72 percent privately owned, the great majority of which is off limits to walkers. Even many of our public spaces, like national parks, are unroamable since we're often forced to keep to trails and designated campsites. Therefore, America, home of the free, is ultimately unroamable. An American right to roam law — that properly balances concerns for the privacy and property of landowners — could open sections of our nation’s 614 million acres of grassland pasture, 408 million acres of cropland, and approximately 444 million acres of privately owned forest. [2]

Walking in the woods is better for you than walking on roads

This is obvious to anyone, but it's important to point to good research that legitimizes common sense. In a pair of studies published in 2015, Stanford graduate student Gregory Bratman found that volunteers who were directed to walk through a green section of the Stanford campus had less anxiety, better memory, and experienced less “morbid rumination” than the volunteers who walked alongside heavy traffic in Palo Alto. [3]

The Right to Roam Society 
What's next for the presently-nonexistent "right to roam" movement in the U.S.? It makes sense to me to create a Right to Roam Society, or an American chapter of the U.K.'s "Ramblers." The Ramblers are a walking advocacy group in the U.K., which is influential and powerful and which fights for the walking rights of ordinary citizens. A similar organization ought to be developed in the U.S. that would bring together folks who ought to think about ways we can throw our weight around. There's absolutely no chance for a national law anytime soon. But there are plenty of battles to be won on the state level, like with opening up private coastlines so that the public can access them. Right to roam activists and lawyers and writers could work together on winning these battles and opening up the country, albeit in a piecemeal fashion

Would a right to roam law even work in the U.S.?

One of the things I don't address in the piece are the challenges (outside of the constitutional challenges) that might get in the way of a successful American right to roam program. When you look at the countries with generous right to roam systems (Scotland, Norway, Sweden, Finland), you can't help but notice that these are countries that have achieved something close to "democratic magnificence." These countries don't have the same disparity of wealth problems that we do. They're impressively egalitarian. And they have strong social safety nets. There just isn't the same abject third-world poverty in these countries that we find in parts of the U.S.

So perhaps a country first needs to satisfy the basic needs of its countrymen and women before it can think about a national right to roam law. Having walked through an impoverished section of Oklahoma, I acknowledge that a right to roam system simply wouldn't work there. There's already too much theft and guns and crime and paranoia. There, a right to roam system wouldn't make any sense.

You can also argue that American towns and cities and suburbs have been built in such a way that many citizens wouldn't get to take advantage of a right to roam law since there are no worthwhile green spaces within walking distance. What green spaces are there for your typical suburbanite, who's surrounded by nothing but more suburban homes and backyards. City dwellers, too, would be largely unaffected by such a law. It's sad to say, but a right to roam law would do a lot of nothing for a great many Americans.

Other right to roamers
There are very few Americans talking about the right to roam. As far as I can tell, my piece is the first in the mainstream press. There are, however, several law scholars who have written about other countries' right to roam laws, and who often make the case that we should consider the possibility of bringing it to the U.S. Here's a little bibliography of essential works:

1. Jerry Anderson is a Drake University Law Professor. He wrote a nice overview of the English and Welsh roaming law while commenting on it's feasibility in the U.S. "Britain's Right to Roam: Redefining the Landowner's Bundle of Sticks."

2. John Lovett is a Loyola Law Professor. He wrote a solid background of the Scottish roaming law. "Progressive Property in Action: The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003.”

3. Brian Sawers is a scholar in residence at Emory University. He wrote a piece on the history of roaming rights in the U.S. “The Right to Exclude from Unimproved Land.”

4. Malcolm Combe is a law scholar from Scotland and one of the foremost experts on the Scottish right to roam. He has a blog here.

How much public land does your state have? 

Normally, I can find an answer to most any question that comes to mind with a bit of relentless research. But one thing I couldn't figure out was how much "public land" each state had. It was easy to find how much federal land was in each state and how much state land was in each state. But I could not find anything that showed how much land was publicly owned in each particular state. I had to do all that data-compiling myself. It will probably look like a mess on this blog, but hopefully you can still see how much public land your state owns. This statistic was important because I wanted to see which states had a lot of public land and which states had just a little. This would help me determine which states have decent access to good roaming land because public land = potentially good roaming land. The unit of measurement I've used here is the acre. [4]

StateFederal LandState Land Total Public LandTotal Acreage in StatePercent of State as Public LandRank for % owned
Alabama 844,02648,16489219032,678,4003%
California 45,864,8001,624,21647489016100,206,72047%7
New Mexico26,981,490196,6772717816777,766,40035%10
North Dakota1,736,61134,792177140344,452,4804%
South Dakota2,642,601101,987274458848,881,9206%
Utah 34,202,920150,7583435367852,696,96065%2
West Virginia1,133,587177,133131072015,410,5609%
Wyoming 30,013,219119,5593013277862,343,04048%6

Citations in this blog post
[1] “Pedometer-Measured Physical Activity and Health Behaviors in U.S. Adults.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: October 2010 - Volume 42 - Issue 10. (Page 1822-23).

[2] “Major Uses of Land in the United States, 2007.” USDA. (Page i)./ “Forest Resources of the United States, 2012.” USDA. (Page 6).

[3] Gregory N. Bratmana, Gretchen C. Daily, Benjamin J. Levy, James J. Gross. “The benefits of nature experience: Improved affect and cognition.”Landscape and Urban Planning 138 (2015). (Page 41).

[4] “Statistical Report of State Park Operations: 2013-2014.” National Association of State Park Directors. (Page 9) The table compiled acreage from states including state parks, recreation areas, natural areas, historic areas, among others. / “Federal Land Ownership: Overview and Data.” Congressional Research Service. December 29, 2014.