Monday, July 25, 2011

The Chairs are Where the People Go

I'll admit to initially being skeptical of--or at least not that interested in--The Chairs are Where the People Go, a book in which a novelist I knew only by name (Sheila Heti) recorded a series of monologues by a man I've never heard of (Misha Glouberman) with the idea that Glouberman would reveal to Heti just about everything he knows by expounding on some of his favorite topics, including:
  • Is wearing a suit a good way to quit smoking?
  • Is monogamy a trick?
  • Why does a computer last only three years?
  • How often should you see your parents?
  • How should we behave at parties?
At first glance, the book struck me as something of a vanity project, more suitably distributed to friends as a PDF (a joke Heti and Glouberman made at the reading) than for publication by the illustrious Faber & Faber. But when an enthusiastic co-worker asked if I'd be interested in attending a launch for the book at the JCC, I put my skepticism aside and pencilled in an evening of "Culture" on my calendar.

Knowing nothing of Glouberman aside from his role in authoring (in a sense) this book did not stop me from forming a very specific mental image: given the folksy, anecdotal nature of the book and its light-hearted cover art, I imagined Glouberman as an elderly man, an exuberant and charismatic proprietor of a delicatessen on the Lower East Side, with tufts of hair sprouting from his ears and a proclivity to dispense witticisms and to "tell it like it is." A man who feeds pigeons and who has a penchant for conspiratorial stage whispering.

While I didn't get to interact with Misha thoroughly or at close enough proximity to comment on his ear hair or ask whether he feeds pigeons, I can certainly tell you that he is not an old Jewish man from New York. Charismatic, yes; exuberant, sure; but not old. And rather than being a New Yorker, he's Canadian, educated at Harvard, and founder of the Misha Glouberman School of Learning.

Glouberman and Heti appear to enjoy each others' company

Along with Heti, Glouberman is also an organizer of a barroom lecture series called Trampoline Hall in Toronto. The idea behind the lecture series is as simple and as "Why didn't I think of that?" as most great ideas: invite someone to give a lecture on a topic he or she is not an expert in. Examples of past topics include "Being an Asshole" (let's hope the lecturer on this topic was indeed a non-expert), "Whales," "Tumbleweed," and "How to perform surgery if you have gangreen." A full history of the series by lecture topic is available on the Trampoline Hall website.

Glouberman's introductory comments allayed any fears I had upon discovering that he was not the old thick-skinned Lower East Sider I imagined. It turns out that I was wrong, in this instance at least, to presume that someone who has a friend so enamored and devoted to one's opinions to write a "How To" book based on those opinions probably has an inflated sense of self-importance. In fact, Glouberman is funny and, in a particular way, wise, as this excerpt on "The Gym" attests.

And even with Glouberman proving the cynic in me wrong with his wit and good humor, it was still a pleasant surprise that the book launch combined Misha's musings with Trampoline Hall-style lectures by a couple of locals: the first, by longtime (and soon to be former) Believer editor Andrew Leland, on "What experimental music is for" and the second, by artist Clare Rojas, illustrator of Heti's new childrens' book We Need a Horse, published by McSweeney's, on "The Gym."

The evening's program will soon be available as a podcast on The Hub of the JCCSF's website.

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