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The Chair Men

By Robert Fulghum. Permission pending.

We say the young have much to learn, but I find they know and do things unfamiliar to me, so I am pleased to learn from them when I can. Example: Two young college men asked me for a ride, because they were late to work. Their summer construction job was near my office, so I was glad to oblige. On the way I asked, "Besides working hard and playing hard, what's happening in your lives?"

They exchanged glances. Then one said, "We're eating a chair."

What?

Yes. It seems that their college philosophy teacher gave them an extra-credit assignment: Do something unique and memorable—not dangerous or foolish, but something imaginative, inventive, and instructive. Write it up, and explain what was learned and how it might apply to their philosophy of life.

So. They are eating a chair.

They bought a plain wooden kitchen chair at an unfinished furniture store. Using a wood rasp, they have been shaving away at the chair, mixing the dust into their granola for breakfast, and sprinkling the dust on their salads at dinner. So far they have consumed most of a leg, two rungs, and a back piece. And while they don't want to overdo it, the pace is picking up. Still, the project may not be finished before summer's end, so they may enlist friends, who, it seems, are enthusiastically willing to help eat a chair.

And yes, they consulted a physician to make sure the wood dust was not harmful. And no, it doesn't taste bad—especially if they mix in a little cinnamon at breakfast and a little lemon pepper at dinner. And yes, they have learned a few things along the way.

"Like what?" I asked.

Like how amazing long-term goals can be achieved in incremental stages. Like how something seemingly idiotic affects your thinking about other things you do. For example, they routinely run about fifteen miles a week to stay in shape— around and around a lake. They wondered where fifteen miles a week would take them if they ran in a straight line. So they got a road map and have been marking off the mileage, headed south. They could be in Portland, Oregon, in a couple of weeks. But that's boring, so they have a European map now and are starting out in Vienna headed for Athens. Using guidebooks, they're figuring out what there is to see and do along the way. They're touring the world in their minds.

And, of course, they're very pleased with themselves. They're sure they'll astound the professor when he asks for their report. "We ate a chair."

"It will blow the dude away," said one.

For all the goofiness of the project, these young men are learning patience and perseverance. Some things cannot be had except on a little-at-a-time, keep-the-long-goal-in-mind, stay-focused basis.

Love and friendship are like that. Marriage and parenthood, too. And peace and justice and social change. As wonderfully silly as it seems, eating a chair may lead my young college friends to wisdom and nobler aspirations.

In their foolishness lies the seed o f What-Might-Be, little by little.

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Last updated on Thursday, October 27, 2011.

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