Thursday, September 30, 2010

Breakfast of Champions

This morning I had a great experience. I enjoy the musings of author James Howard Kunstler. He writes books about urbanism, energy policy and society in general. He is not a planner by trade, he studied journalism. Jim has written 10 books, some fiction, most non. Lately, he has written fiction based upon the notion that our oil reserves are finite and that soon we will come to a point where oil will run out, and that will have far reaching impacts.

Jim is currently on a book tour for his latest book, the Which of Hebron, which is one of his fictional books to promote the book. I was in Portsmouth this weekend and saw that he will be at River Run books tonight (Sept 30). I decided Sunday that it would be a good idea to email Jim and see if he had time for lunch.

Sure enough he wrote back Monday. We were able to work out a breakfast this morning in Exeter. What follows is recollection of breakfast.

I met Jim at 8 am. We had emailed back and forth earlier in the week, and I told him I'd call him when I got to Exeter. Not caring where we ate, I had no issue eating at the hotel restaurant.

Jim is a great guy. His writing can be cantankerous and seem jaded, but I didn't take that away from him at all. I honestly had no expectation. I don't see him as anything more than someone who chronicles his observations in book, blog and podcast form. Breakfast was just that. We ate, shot the breeze and joked for 2 hours.

I found Jim to be very real and very laid back. He is, in my mind, a celeb. That said he has the same quirks, and problems we all have in life. We commiserated about traveling to and in New Orleans, where he had just came back from. We discussed a recent podcast he did in which he discussed traveling to Acadia National Park from upstate NY. He had some great line about the disposable architecture you find on Route 1 from Hampton NH to Acadia. In fact, I pointed out that the whole drive has such poor built form not just along this stretch but along almost all of Route 1.

Kunstler grew up in NYC and I told him my son and I are heading there next Friday - by train - and he gave me some pointers and then laughed at the trip we have planned (about 10 hours of train and bus travel packed into a 24 hour period). We talked baseball, which was great.

I never felt like I should be impressed to be with him - though I was - nor did I ever feel that he was "on" for me. There was no character, he was a guy with opinions and unlike many people he isn't afraid to share them, and even better he didn't feel that his opinions outranked mine. For instance we talked about Portsmouth, and I gave him some local observations and he gave me the tourist POV. It was fun to hear, and at the end of the day, I think he took my comments as worthwhile.

As I said, I got to spend 2 hours with him. I figured at best I'd get half and hour of coffee. At no point did I get rushed. There was an equal feeling of respect of time and in the end I think the fact we both had to get to work was the limiting factor. For someone who has a great bite to his writing, he was incredibly polite and was not phased by any question. All he wanted in response was equal ability to ask questions (we talked about being a city planner - dealing with the public - and about the process of setting personal preference aside for legal rights). He was also interested to hear about Dover's Form Based Code. I say interested, because I don't think he ever humored me.

Have I found a new best friend? No, but I would gladly spend more time, email, breakfast or otherwise with Jim. He has some great ideas (we are running out of oil, and we do need to learn to live without so much dependence on automobiles), and is a terrific writer (read The Geography of Nowhere).

Did I miss an opportunity? Not sure on this one. I thought about giving him a first hand take on owning a Pit Bull, which he derided in a podcast once. In the end it didn't matter to me if he was won over or not. Writing that I guess I don't have any regrets. You always think about what ifs. What if I had been able to get him to Dover? What if I had asked him for writing advice? What if I asked him if he wanted to crash at my house, instead of a hotel tonight (I can only imagine my wife's take on that one - hey Sweety guess what!). No, I think I did all right.

When I got back to Dover, I sent a thank you email. I think in honesty the response I got back was a sincere you're welcome and a just as sincere, thanks for my time.

This was a great way to start a day. Bill Bryson, who wrote a wonderful book about walking the Appalachian Trail, is speaking in 2 weeks at River Run. Maybe I'll email him. What's the worse that happens?

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