The Chairs Are Where the People Go: How to Live, Work, and Play in the City

The Chairs Are Where the People Go: How to Live, Work, and Play in the City

by Misha Glouberman, Sheila Heti

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Should neighborhoods change? Is wearing a suit a good way to quit smoking? Why do people think that if you do one thing, you're against something else? Is monogamy a trick? Why isn't making the city more fun for you and your friends a super-noble political goal? Why does a computer last only three years? How often should you see your parents? How should we behave at parties? Is marriage getting easier? What can spam tell us about the world?

Misha Glouberman's friend and collaborator, Sheila Heti, wanted her next book to be a compilation of everything Misha knew. Together, they made a list of subjects. As Misha talked, Sheila typed. He talked about games, relationships, cities, negotiation, improvisation, Casablanca, conferences, and making friends. His subjects ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. But sometimes what had seemed trivial began to seem important—and what had seemed important began to seem less so.

The Chairs Are Where the People Go
is refreshing, appealing, and kind of profound. It's a self-help book for people who don't feel they need help, and a how-to book that urges you to do things you don't really need to do.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

The city in question is Toronto, where Glouberman lives and plies his trades as instructor in improvisation and charades, and artistic impresario. These plainspoken, idiosyncratic essays, transcribed by Heti, a friend and fellow organizer, of their lecture series Trampoline Hall, coalesce cozily around the patient, earnest, well-intentioned voice of the speaker. Doled out is sanguine, youth-oriented advice such as how to make friends in a new city ("It's useful to identify what you like to do"), why going to parties should be fun and constructive, and the importance of placing chairs as close to the stage as possible ("Everyone should know these things"). The platitudes are self-explanatory, but prove so understated as to be frequently hilarious. Examples are observations on manners and teaching an audience to ask good questions ("What I warn people against is feelings of pride"). During the long-winded account of how he formed a neighborhood residents' association to block the opening of noisy bars, Glouberman concludes with a healthy endorsement of compromise—a realization that surprised even himself. Eliminating antagonism is one of the author's pets, as well as learning how to be decisive (like when quitting smoking) and simply accept unhappiness as an ongoing state of striving. As part of his work, he shares many tips on playing charades and easing communication with other games, like play fighting; overall, he dispenses the nondidactic wisdom of an avuncular sage. (July)

From the Publisher

A triumph of what might be called conversational philosophy . . . The world is better for these humane and hilarious essays.” —The New Yorker

“[A] glorious collection of essays . . . deeply hip and also endearing . . . The general message is collaboration amid density, hilarity despite and with all due respect for (some of) the rules.” —Susan Salter Reynolds, The Los Angeles Times

“These plainspoken, idiosyncratic essays . . . coalesce cozily around the patient, earnest, well-intentioned voice of the speaker. . . The platitudes are self-explanatory, but prove so understated as to be frequently hilarious . . . overall, he dispenses the nondidactic wisdom of an avuncular sage.” —Publishers Weekly

“The title of this offbeat guide by Canadian improvisation instructor Glouberman is somewhat of a misnomer, as the 72 short chapters actually contain the author's thoughts and opinions about life in general. For instance, he explains why computers last only three years and why wearing a suit is a good way to quit smoking. Glouberman reduces many aspects of socialization to game playing, and advises the reader how to be good at charades, for instance, or how to fight in gibberish. The book is surprisingly entertaining and offers enjoyable browsing.” —Library Journal

“A bounty of short, sound advice and commentary from a Canadian improvisational-theatre instructor . . . Transcribing the author's words verbatim produces fresh, pithy perspectives on a wide range of diverse subjects, issues, pleasures and irritants.” —Kirkus Reviews

“If you're searching for a gift for that student who is ending her academic career or about to take a job in a strange new city, you could do worse than this modest, idiosyncratic version of an urban survival manual . . . Glouberman is consistently reasonable, self-effacing and creative as he poses at least tentative solutions to these dilemmas, while discoursing on thornier and more abstract subjects, like whether monogamy is a trick or how we might go about creating meaningful ritual to serve a secular society . . . It's pleasant to imagine sharing a coffee with Misha Glouberman in a Toronto café, exploring some of life's recurring mysteries. Until that opportunity presents itself, this book is an admirable substitute.” —Shelf Awareness

“An odd and satisfying blend of philosophy, self-help, and, improbably, charade game theory. Misha Glouberman wins you over with a simple and good-spirited reasonableness that leaves you feeling uplifted by the power a voice of common sense can still have in the world. The Chairs Are Where the People Go reads like the wisdom of Benjamin Franklin as told to David Byrne.” —JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN, contributing editor to This American Life and author of Lenny Bruce Is Dead

“Sheila Heti is the patron saint of raconteurs. Misha Glouberman is a raconteur. The result is a compendium of riffs on a variety of interesting subjects. Misha stays serious throughout. Sheila stays calm. The result is very funny.” —DAVE HICKEY, author of The Invisible Dragon and Air Guitar

“A clever, thoughtful commentary on modern urban life, illuminating everything from how to deal with annoying neighbors to how to run an improv class.” —PHILIPP MEYER, author of American Rust

“The book initially seems a series of exercises in studied naiveté. Then Glouberman admits to waking up in the middle of the night with panic attacks about the charades class he's developed and taught for years, and the tone changes. You, too, start to remember the difficulty and the crucial seriousness of impracticality, of relearning unpracticed behavior, and of life itself.” —SARAH MANGUSO, author of The Two Kinds of Decay

“This breezy but smart book tells you everything you need to know about how best to play charades, the dilemmas of being an urban activist, how to set up chairs, why wearing a suit might help you give up smoking, and many other things. It lulls you into thinking you've got it sorted out only to suddenly become surprisingly insightful and even moving.” —BRIAN EVENSON, author of Altmann's Tongue and Baby Leg

“The ethos that emerges from The Chairs Are Where the People Go — and I say "emerges" because it is only ever implicit —offers a possible way out of America's inwardly focused mess. Glouberman and Heti never admonish or direct, but as a reader, seeing empathy in practice is helpful and encouraging — even, and maybe especially, if it's demonstrated through an improv game.” —Jessica Gross, The Rumpus

“[The Chairs Are Where the People Go] almost makes me think of Demetri Martin giving up on being a comedian, and becoming a philosopher.” —Jason Diamond, Vol. 1 Brooklyn

The Chairs Are Where The People Go is sort of an Advanced Urban Studies, about the aesthetics of the everyday, and how to get along with everyone else while learning to enjoy yourself more creatively. For someone like me who hates the genre (is it a genre?), it does for self-help books what Moby Dick did for the novel.” —Chris Estey,

“But these brief essays — most are just a page or two long — pile onto each other in an interesting, even hypnotic fashion (that's Heti's hand at work). As Glouberman explains why he enjoys making actors babble gibberish at each other, and as he lists some of the most difficult charades clues he's ever encountered (including Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, Guam, and 1984), you start to, grudgingly at first, fall for the guy . . . When you get near the end of Chairs, you realize that all the stories have a common theme: Glouberman is most interested in teaching people how to communicate. That's a decidedly urban goal—cities would not be tolerable places without effective communication-but it's also a beautifully human goal. What Glouberman has learned from teaching and finding compromises and community with his neighbors can be used everywhere, to make life better for everyone. Without the struggle to find food or to simply stay alive, he can focus on bettering the fundamental glue that holds us all together.” —Paul Constant, The Stranger

“There is definitely something about Misha Glouberman that makes us want to hang out inside his head for a little while.” —Renee Ghert-Zand, The Forward

contributing editor to This American Life and auth JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

An odd and satisfying blend of philosophy, self-help, and, improbably, charade game theory. Misha Glouberman wins you over with a simple and good-spirited reasonableness that leaves you feeling uplifted by the power a voice of common sense can still have in the world. The Chairs Are Where the People Go reads like the wisdom of Benjamin Franklin as told to David Byrne.

Library Journal

The title of this offbeat guide by Canadian improvisation instructor Glouberman is somewhat of a misnomer, as the 72 short chapters actually contain the author's thoughts and opinions about life in general. For instance, he explains why computers last only three years and why wearing a suit is a good way to quit smoking. Glouberman reduces many aspects of socialization to game playing, and advises the reader how to be good at charades, for instance, or how to fight in gibberish. The book is surprisingly entertaining and offers enjoyable browsing.

Kirkus Reviews

A bounty of short, sound advice and commentary from a Canadian improvisational-theatre instructor.

Together with good friend Heti, Glouberman, a former manners columnist, facilitates the popular Trampoline Hall spoken-word series, where amateur lecturers take center stage. Heti, consistently awestruck by her co-collaborator's vast knowledge base, decided to team up with Glouberman on a book elucidating "everything he knows." Transcribing the author's words verbatim produces fresh, pithy perspectives on a wide range of diverse subjects, issues, pleasures and irritants. With a collective slant toward the younger reader, Glouberman's sage, instructional and often unintentionally hilarious commentary addresses how to navigate urban Toronto life while respecting others' personal space ("A city is a place where you can be alone in public, and where you have that right"), how to make friends ("You'll have to spend time with people who seem initially interesting but then turn out not to be"), acquiesce leadership roles, learn manners and some unconventional chatter on what he believes energizes cocktail parties ("people's fear of being seen not talking to anyone"). While some of his advice borders on whimsy, the author shines when he shares personal anecdotes and revelations—e.g., his civic involvement in the development of a local neighborhood Resident's Association advocating against the proliferation of noisy nightclubs in residential areas. He saves his greatest revelation for last in describing how he quit a heavy smoking habit using a self-rewarding method and the development of a conscious, steely decisiveness that continues to fortify his life today.

Perceptive musings ready-made for artistically inspired readers and those with short attention spans.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781429968645
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 07/05/2011
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 192
File size: 431 KB

Read an Excerpt

The Chairs are Where the People Go

How to Live, Work, and Play in the City

By Misha Glouberman, Sheila Heti

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2011 Misha Glouberman and Sheila Heti
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-6864-5


People's Protective Bubbles Are Okay

I hear people complain that, for instance, in this city, people don't say hi on the street or make eye contact on the subway. And people try to remedy this problem by doing public art projects that are meant to rouse the bourgeoisie from their slumber. But that's ridiculous! It's perfectly reasonable for people not to want to see your dance performance when they are coming home from work. People are on the subway because they're getting from one place to another, and for all you know, they're coming from a job that involves interacting with lots and lots of people, and going to a home where there's a family where they're going to interact with lots more people. And the subway's the one place where they can have some quiet time, get some reading done, not have to smile, not have to make eye contact. That's what a city is: a city is a place where you can be alone in public, and where you have that right. It's necessary to screen people out. It would be overwhelming if you had to perceive every single person on a crowded subway car in the fullness of their humanity. It would be completely paralyzing. You couldn't function. So don't try to fix this. There is no problem.


How to Make Friends in a New City

If you're just finishing school — maybe you're in your early twenties, maybe you're moving to a new city — you need to make friends. The very most important thing to know is that this isn't easy. It's really easy to make friends when you're a child, and it's really easy to make friends in high school and in college. And for a lot of people, I think, it's a real shock to discover that making friends doesn't take care of itself in adulthood. When you come to university you're crammed together with a couple of thousand people who are around your age and who share a bunch of stuff in common with you, and most important, are at that very same moment also looking for new friends. In this sort of situation, it would take a lot of conscious effort to end up not having friends. But adult life isn't like that. You may move to a new city, maybe for a job that doesn't easily put you into contact with a lot of people with whom you have much in common. So what that means is that it's work, and maybe for the first time in your life you have to actually take making friends on as a project. I knew so many people around that stage of life who suddenly found themselves isolated and couldn't understand why, and had never thought of making friends as something they had to bring conscious effort to.

If you see making friends as a project, you can understand that there will be efforts and costs and risks. You have to go to functions that you don't exactly feel like going to, you have to stick your neck out and make gestures that are embarrassing or can make you feel vulnerable. You'll have to spend time with people who initially seem interesting but then turn out not to be. But all those things are okay if you see them as the costs involved in a project.

It's useful to identify what you like to do, because friends are the people with whom you can do those things. So if you like to cook, you might take a cooking class and meet people who are interested in cooking. Or if what you like to do is go drink in bars, then find people who want to drink in bars with you. If you like to watch television and make fun of it, find other people who want to do that. It's useful to remember that friendship needs an activity associated with it.

If you're the ambitious sort, you can try to create your own world around you, and maybe have a party at your house every two weeks. I think Andy Warhol's grandmother gave him similar advice. This gets you more than friends — it can create a whole community. I'll say it takes a certain kind of person to do this, though. But if you can do it — if you can put yourself at the center of something — it really works.

When I came to Toronto, here's what I liked to do: I liked drinking in bars and I liked thinking about the Internet. This was at a time when thinking about the Internet wasn't so popular, but drinking in bars was, so I just started a club, and I put out the word, and I invited other people. I was the only person at my organization at the time who was really interested in thinking about the Internet. It was at a time when sort of every organization hired one person to be their web guy. So there were all these lonely, isolated web guys scattered around the city, and we started a biweekly bar night. I was completely new in town, but just by starting something like that, you really put yourself in the center of all kinds of things. Being a host — it's a really super-valuable service that a lot of people are disinclined to do, and if you can do it, it's a great way to meet people.


The Uniqlo Game

There's an online game which I love — from, of all places, a Japanese clothing company called Uniqlo. The game has a fast-paced pop culture feel to it. There is a grid of Uniqlo logos on the screen, and you manipulate them in different ways. You can make big ones or little ones. You can chop them up or merge them together. You can make them disappear. It's a multiplayer game. All they tell you about the players is their sign-in name and what country they're from, so you and someone in France and someone in Korea and someone in the United States, all of indeterminate age and gender, are manipulating these shared sets of blocks.

The genius of the game, to me, is that there's no chat area. There's no way you can send messages to the other players. You can only communicate by dragging these logos around. It's so interesting in the context of that to think, Can I make this person in Korea like me? Can I flatter this person in France by echoing the moves that they're making on this grid? Can I do something terribly mischievous in a way that won't be perceived as hostile, or can I do something hostile in a way that will be?

I like playing this game a lot.


Going to the Gym

One idea that came up a lot around the time I was in college was that some ideas or opinions were social constructions. So, for instance, if you could show that ideals of female beauty were something that society had created, then you could also show that these ideals aren't something that people naturally feel, but rather they're a brainwashing tool created by society — in this case to perpetuate the patriarchal hegemony.

Another example of this: I read a book a little while ago which made the point that while we worry a lot about status, maybe we shouldn't, since after all, the things that are associated with status in our society aren't associated with status in other societies right now, and weren't associated with status historically in other societies, so really it's all arbitrary. Today, being thin and having strong analytic skills are valued, whereas in another society being a fast runner would have been important, or in another one, obesity was a sign of status. The author sort of concludes, Why worry?

But all that stuff's crazy! Just because something's socially constructed, doesn't mean it's not real. I mean, we can show that every society has a different set of standards for feminine beauty, and that every society has different sets of standards for status, but it's equally remarkable that every society does have standards for feminine beauty, and does have standards for status. We're humans. We exist in societies. We create cultures. And these cultures may be different from each other, with different beliefs, but they're who we are. There's not something more "real" to discover about us if you take all that away. A human who doesn't exist in a culture isn't somehow more true. In fact, I think a human who doesn't exist in a culture — that's not what a human is. I exist in the culture that I exist in, and I can know that other cultures see status in different ways, but I will be swayed by the ideas of status that affect mine. I can know that other cultures have different standards of feminine beauty and still be attracted by the standards of feminine beauty that exist in mine.

This doesn't seem any more shocking to me than finding a passage of literature written in English beautiful but not a passage written in a language I can't read. I don't feel like my impression of beauty in the English passage is destroyed by someone pointing out that the correlation between these words and the objects they describe isn't actually real — that other societies use different words for the same things, and that the use of one symbol to represent a certain object or sound is at base somewhat arbitrary. I'm okay with that.

I went to the gym pretty regularly for a long time, and it always felt so crazy to me. The gym is like the meeting point of all these different things that are emblematic of our time. It looks like the shopping mall and the factory, and it's where our crazy desire to exert ourselves and work hard meets our crazy desire to be young forever, along with our crazy confusion about our appetites, and our imagining that we can subject everything to rational, super-mechanistic processes. Fifty years from now, if you wanted to pick something that encapsulates the old days of the early twenty-first century, you'd show the gym.

For a while I was kind of embarrassed to be a part of what seems like a huge fad of our day, but then I figured: Fuck it. I am of our day. I don't have to see through everything. Or I can even see through things a little bit, but I'm still a part of them.


How to Be Good at Playing Charades

I have taught How to Be Good at Playing Charades in a bunch of contexts. I have taught corporate charades classes. I've taught charades as part of a regular games night I ran at a hotel, and I taught it on the radio. The most fun was teaching charades as a six-part series of classes that people signed up for. They paid me money to come to a classroom every week. We did charades drills and exercises. Sometimes I gave them homework. I gave out charades certificates at the end.

For reasons that are completely unclear to me, I was very nervous about whether I was qualified to teach charades. This is crazy! I'm perfectly okay with teaching a music class to trained musicians, even though I don't read music or really know anything about it, but for some reason I was worried that my qualifications as a charades expert might be challenged.

So I did something I never do in my classes, which was that I really tried to establish my authority on the first day. People acted out clues, and we would collectively try to guess them, and I would guess the clue before everyone else in the class every single time. I felt like some old martial arts instructor, challenging people in the class to try to push him over as a way to win their respect. I did this consciously.

* * *

When I planned my first charades class, I worked really hard on the announcement because I didn't think anyone would sign up. I figured that just sending out the announcement might constitute the whole project, but I was pleasantly surprised when quite a lot of people signed up.

A lot of people also dropped out. I think they dropped out when they realized it really was just a course in charades. I think they expected there to be something else happening.

There are basically two sets of skills for playing charades. There are acting-related skills and guessing-related skills — sort of like fielding and hitting in baseball, or offense and defense in hockey.

When you're acting out a clue for another person, it's really important to remember that the other person does not know what you're acting out. This seems obvious, but a lot of the time, people will act out a charade in a way which would make perfect sense if you knew what the title was, but from which the title would be completely impossible to guess if you didn't know it.

This seems like a trivial point, but it's important. It means that, if at all possible, you shouldn't get angry at the other person for not knowing what it is you're trying to act out. It's one of the most common failures that people have: they'll act something out, and the other person won't be able to guess it, and their response will be to do the same gesture again, but more exasperated this time. So the first step really is just an acceptance of the fact that the other person does not know.

Some of the tips that apply to charades are the same tips you would apply to any improvisation: Be precise in your gestures. Be wholehearted. Don't forget to bring emotional content to what you do. These things help a lot.

When you're guessing, assume that every detail is important. If someone is drinking a beverage, you might say drink or water. But if they're drinking a beverage in a dainty manner with their pinkie extended, assume that's part of the clue — that there is a reason for that. The word that they're trying to connote cannot be drink, because no one would try to connote the word drink by drinking in this very specific manner. The word might be tea or English.

The most important thing to remember for everyone involved is that it's a dialogue. That is, it's your job to respond to each other. So, as the guesser, throw lots of guesses at the person acting out the clue, because this allows them to change what they are doing, or lets you know if you're on the right or wrong track. If you just sit and watch, waiting until you know for sure, you'll never get it right. Similarly, as the person acting out the clue, if you just take the approach that you want to take, while ignoring what is or isn't getting through to the people you're acting for, it's going to take a very long time.

Playing charades is specifically about the difficulty of communication. Without the difficulty, there is no game. With practice you could get better at communicating through the obstacles that charades presents you, but that's not really the point. It's a game, so the point is not the elimination of obstacles — it's enjoying yourself. To learn to play charades, you have to learn to enjoy yourself while trying to communicate with people who don't understand you and don't know what you know.


Don't Pretend There Is No Leader

People are very uncomfortable with roles. They like to pretend they're not in charge when they are in charge. They like to pretend someone else who is in charge is not in charge. They don't understand that it can be great to be in charge and it can be great to have someone else in charge — that there can be pleasure in these different roles.

I think a thing that happens a lot in certain kinds of creative groups and certain kinds of activist groups is a pretense that everything is collaborative and nonhierarchical, when in truth someone is the leader. Often that person is the person who started the group.

There are several reasons people pretend they're not the leader. One reason is a simple mistake. The mistake is that they think it's mean to tell people what to do, and they want to be nice. They think that being bossy isn't nice, or having power over people isn't nice. But that's silly! Of course it's oppressive to be someone's leader if you give them no choice — if you force them to have you as a leader — but a lot of the time people want someone to be their leader, especially if they've joined your group.

So in exactly the same way that the rules of a game aren't oppressive but let you play the game and are where the fun of the game lies, leadership can be useful. It's what lets you do things. And it's not cruel.

In some cases, people who feel nervous about leading might be taking their leadership too seriously — thinking it's so powerful they have to temper it. Or they might just be scared. It's scary to be in charge, and it's nice to imagine that decisions are someone else's responsibility. Also, they may not realize that people who aren't leaders typically don't want to make all the decisions. They don't want to impose their vision. What they specifically appreciate about the leader is that the leader can provide a vision and make decisions. If you started the group, it can be hard to imagine that someone might want to be in your group and not be in charge of it, because it's so exciting for you to be in charge of it. That creates a situation where leaders are often disappointed with people in their group, because the leader gives over some power, and the people in the group don't take as much initiative as the leader imagined they would. So the leader is trying to give them something that they think the people in the group desperately and jealously want, but which they actually don't want at all.

I think this happens with bands all the time, and in social justice activism. In these realms, it can be hard because there's often an ideological opposition to the idea of leadership.


Excerpted from The Chairs are Where the People Go by Misha Glouberman, Sheila Heti. Copyright © 2011 Misha Glouberman and Sheila Heti. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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