The Chairs Are Where the People Go

Book Cover

Last year, a friend suggested I read Misha Glouberman's book The Chairs Are Where The People Go. Glouberman organizes events in Toronto and my friend said he thought I would enjoy it based on my experiences with minne✱.

Glouberman is one of those people you want in your city. He spends his time organizing classes and events that give people something interesting to do, at much personal financial cost (he was a computer programmer).

The book is rather unusual. It is a series of essays as dictated to and edited by his friend Sheila Heti. A short series of essays by an artist in Toronto doesn't seem promising as a book of widespread interest, and I did find many of the essays uninteresting. Glouberman's interests and mine are pretty different, so when he talks specifically about what makes a good charades class or experimental music experience, that can be a slog. But there are some real gems as well. He has a lot to say about what makes a city work, and his experience organizing good events shines through.

Below are a few of my favorite bits.

2. How to Make Friends in a New City

[A]dult 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.

7. The Chairs are Where the People Go

This is a key lesson for event organizers. This is why we split MinneDemo into two separate areas: one for listening, and one for talking. If you don't do something to prevent people from talking over the presenter, your event is going to suck.

There's a thoughtlessness in how people consider their audience that's reflected in how they set up chairs. You can see that thoughtlessness immediately....

Leaving space for people to stand in the back at a reading is ridiculous. Who wants to stand through a reading? You're pretty much intentionally designing things so that a lot of people will find the reading boring, because it's incredibly hard to not be bored when you're watching someone read from far away and you're standing. Those people at the back will talk to each other. So not only will they have a bad time, but their bad time will make it worse for everyone else.

30. Seeing my Friends Drunk for the First Time

This is an interesting observation: bars are in the boredom business, because it sells drinks.

When I first started my games night, something I thought was, So many of the things that happen in bars are such boring experiences, and I figured a games night would be a way to give people a more engaging exprience in bars....

What I didn't understand at the time was that a lot of things I viewed as problems were actually part of the business model....[W]hen you go to see a band, it usually starts later than it's scheduled to, and there's more time between sets than you feel you need, and it's boring. But all the boredom sells drinks.

In the same essay he argues that drinking simply increases your tolerance for boring situations:

It's not that you becoming interesting and fun when you're drunk, it's that your perception of interesting and fun is lowered to such a moronic level.

44. These Projects Don't Make Money

This essay resonated with me because how much money minne✱ costs to run, and how often Ben and I would end on the hook for the overruns in the early days. Renting space and buying food and drinks for hundreds of people is expensive. This year, we will be publishing an annual report for the first time, which will show people how the finances work.

It's really obvious to some people and not at all obvious to other people that the projects I run don't make any money at all. When people with real jobs read something about an art exhibition in a newspaper, or see a band interviewed on TV or featured on the cover of a local weekly, it's natural for them to assume tha those people are making money. I mean, they're doing something that seems really successful. They're in the paper---you're not. So surely they must be making money.

For the past several years, I've hosted the Trampoline Hall lecture series. When Trampoline Hall was doing really well, a friend of Sheila and her then husband, Carl, came up to them soon after they bought a house and said, Wow, I guess the shows must be doing really well for you to be able to afford this house. At the time, the show really was something of a little phenomenon. But it was a little phenomenon that happened once a month before a crowd of eighty people and charged five dollars at the door. And he wasn't joking! It's hard for people sometimes to understand that things that look successful or generate attention don't necessarily also generate money.

I feel it would be useful if the audience had a clearer understanding of what the economics really are. I always wanted to do a Trampoline Hall show about money, where part of the show would be to break down the budget of Trampoline Hall and explain to the audience how it came to be, and that we basically lost money doing this nominally successful show.

46. Asking a Good Question

[A] good question has to be a question. I warn them that if they take a statement and try to raise the pitch of their voices at the end of their sentences, we won't be tricked. I tell the audience that grammarians will agree that there's no such thing as a two-part question, what they really have are two questions, and that they should just pick the better of the two.

I say that one way to tell if your question is any good is to look inside yourself. I ask the audience to pay attention to what feelings they have when they feel a question coming on. It may seem obvious, but curiosity is a good feeling to have....

What I warn people against is feelings of pride.

51. Conferences Should Be an Exhilarating Experience

This is a longer essay about unconferences, which I enjoyed because I help organize one (albeit less "un" than most unconferences, but also about 10 times bigger). However, the most striking part is this simple rule for group conversation:

For the discussion part of the conference, I usually don't give too much instruction, but I have one tip that I'll give people. It's my "one over n" rule of conversation. What I tell people is: If you're in a group of five people, the natural amount of time for you to be talking is about a fifth of the time.

55. Making the City More Fun for You and Your Privileged Friends Isn't a Super-Noble Political Goal

There are a lot of people out there who advocate a specific kind of civic improvement....[T]here's a cluster of causes that go together: less corporate advertising; more cycling and walking and less car use; outdoor events and street parties and bringing art to public places. There's a lot about this work that's genuinely laudable, but what the city will end up looking like if such people achieve their goals is one that's uniquely and specifically well suited to people who are young and well educated and able-bodied, with a fair amount of free time, who are interested in culture and parties and living in a dense downtown core. In other words, people just like themselves.

57. Impostor Syndrome

One possibility I think people often overlook is that there might be people who feel this way because they are impostors. There actually are people who hold impressive jobs or high positions who don't merit them.

It's normal for us to feel insecure about our own real abilities or accomplishments, but it's also the case that we're kind of encouraged to lie about our abilities and successes. There is so much pressure on people to achieve, to become ever more accomplished and impressive, and that goes along with this encouragement to be a kind of salesman of yourself in a certain way. So what ends up happening is that a lot of people really are presenting a version of themselves that is false. In this case, the reason they have this unpleasant feeling of being an impostor is because they are one.

68. Social Capital

A lot of people I know who work in the arts think they're poor. And it's true that some of them might not have much money, but the idea that they are somehow "the poor" is, I think, and idea too ridiculous to even merit serious discussion.