The Conversation Continues
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To return to my December 2002 Barbaric Yawp interview with John Berbrich, click here.
To read our original 2001 interview, click here.
William Michaelian: Welcome to 2008! So. What do you want to talk about this year? Anything new and revolutionary floating around in that head of yours?
John Berbrich: Not that I know of. My primary pursuit so far this tender year has been shoveling snow. On New Yearís Eve we watched Mystery Science Theater 3000: ďThe Blood Waters of Dr. Z,Ē I think it was called. Have you ever seen Mystery Science Theater?
William Michaelian: No, I sure havenít. Whatís happening in the year 3000?
John Berbrich: Well, itís some crazy stuff. Ask your kids about it. Mystery Science Theater 3000 was a TV show which ran I believe throughout the 90ís. Thereís a framework set up to give the episodes continuity, but the main thing is this: they take old Grade D horror & sci-fi films & add commentary. You can see the silhouettes of these three guys sitting in the theater, w/ the movie screen beyond them. The movies are unbelievably awful, & the commentary is hilarious. You need to be able to appreciate the ridiculous in order to enjoy these shows. MST/3000 is simply one of the top three TV shows ever, possibly the best.
William Michaelian: Wow. Thatís a pretty high rating. Now youíve got me wondering about the other two.
John Berbrich: I canít think of any but I didnít want to over-praise MST/3000. This Dr. Z film was incredibly awful. We had a great time. Other top TV shows? I donít know, had a fling w/ several when I was young ó Abbott & Costello, the Honeymooners, Star Trek, Man from U.N.C.L.E. ó those were some of my favorites as a kid, plus the Three Stooges of course. We donít get TV now so I guess Iím mostly safe from the influence of reality shows. If you have any kind of life at all ó what is the point of watching a reality TV show?
William Michaelian: None whatsoever. If people would dynamite their TVs and start living again, it would be the greatest revolution in history. The money-crazed power-mad monsters who run things would panic.
John Berbrich: I think it would be great. Could be the best thing ever happened.
William Michaelian: That reminds me ó isnít there some sort of annual leave-off-your-TV week?
John Berbrich: Sounds eminently plausible but Iíve never heard of it. Wonder if theyíve advertised for it on TV?
William Michaelian: Yes. They show a family gathered around a TV set, staring forlornly at a blank screen. Perched atop the TV is a beautiful exotic bird with brightly colored plumage. Finally one of the kids looks up and says, ďHey, how long has that been there?Ē
John Berbrich: Hey, good point, kid. Thereís nothing wrong inherently w/ TV, I suppose, but the box doesnít need to be on 10 hours each day. Willie, speaking of TV, thereís a film festival in Potsdam today, all locally-made movies. Runs from 11:00 to 5:00, w/ a couple of intermissions. Twenty films are scheduled, so that averages roughly 15 minutes each. This promises to be great fun. And there is a prize, not sure what it is. Iíll tell you all about this later.
William Michaelian: Okay. Iíll be waiting. Meanwhile, I know what the prize should be: the Paddy Dignam Award.
John Berbrich: Great idea, but they offered a paltry $200 instead. It turned out to be 14 films instead of 20. What a great afternoon! The Grand Prize winner was New Uke City, written & directed by Clyde Folley. This was an excellent documentary about ukulele players in NYC. They interviewed four or five ukulele players who perform monthly at this little underground club in Manhattanís East Village just one block from where I used to attend concerts at the old Fillmore East. One ukulele player was this good looking blonde who chopped up fruits & vegetables before the show & handed them out to the crowd. Her lackeys covered the wall behind her w/ canvas. She sang a dirty song (it wasnít really dirty) & was pelted by melons & what looked like actual bucketfuls of dirt. It was magnificent. Marvelous fun! Best Student Film was Lean On Me, written and directed by Margaret Spilman. It was about this young guy who finds a dead young woman in the road & doesnít know how to get rid of the body. This might sound stupid, but it was really pretty interesting. Filmed in black & white, it made quite an impression. We had a great time, & plan to make our own film for next year & win the grand prize!
William Michaelian: Thatís what I like to hear. Talk about a fun project. I think you should get started right away. Where were these films shown, by the way? In an older, or newer building? How large a screen?
John Berbrich: The films were shown at the Roxy in Potsdam, an old downtown theater. So the screen was a standard wall-size, I couldnít begin to estimate the dimensions. Admission was free, but donations were accepted. The festival was presented by the North Country Film Society & the Roxy Theater itself, so it looks like the management donated the use of its facilities. Another festival is planned for next year & I definitely want to get in on it.
William Michaelian: It is hard to resist. And Iím sure you already have some ideas ó not counting Paddy Dignamís Hearse, of course. Hey, hereís a thought. Maybe I should move out there and make a documentary on you making the film.
John Berbrich: Another startling idea. Well, you can if you want. Weíve plenty of room. By the way, Iíve already written the screenplay.
William Michaelian: Ah-ha. I thought you had something up your sleeve. Care to talk about it? Or would you prefer to keep it under wraps?
John Berbrich: I will say that itís a farcical spy-thriller, including one mad scientist. I actually wrote it last year when we had originally intended to make the film but didnít get to it. This year we will.
William Michaelian: For some odd reason, the name Farrago comes to mind. Okay, then. Weíll have to coordinate our activities. My hope is that an adventurous third party will want to make a documentary of me making a documentary of you making your film.
John Berbrich: You got someone in mind? And the scientistís name is Dr. Zarkov, which goes back to the mini horror-dramas that we used to record years ago.
William Michaelian: Excellent name, Zarkov. Does he have a first name? Leonard, perhaps? Anton? Dmitri? Nikolai? Randy?
John Berbrich: No-no. Heís simply the mad Dr. Zarkov. Of course Zarkov is aided by his faithful assistant, the half-crazed Albanian dwarf named Alfred. Although as I recall in some episodes the dwarf was named Igor. Weíll have to resolve this discrepancy before we go much further.
William Michaelian: Perhaps. Perhaps not. In fact, I kind of like the idea of the assistant having several names. But of course itís your movie. Itís interesting though. It seems mad scientists always go by their last names, and their faithful assistants go by their first names.
John Berbrich: Good observation. Iíve just remembered: Igor was the organ player, creator of that creepy mood music. Albert was indeed the half-crazed assistant. Two different characters, w/ two very different roles. Or were they rolls, smeared in butter or something?
William Michaelian: Actors and their rolls ó I like it. I also like that Alfred just turned into Albert. Half-crazed: what about the other half? Or do you mean that heís crazed half the time, and that the rest of the time he handles the bookkeeping?
John Berbrich: Willie, come on ó I havenít thought of this stuff in years. It was indeed Albert who was the half-crazed Albanian dwarf assistant to the mad Dr. Zarkov. If Albert were more than half-crazed, I assume he would have been useless to the good Doctor. We never really inquired too deeply into what he did w/ the rest of his time, although working for a fiend like Zarkov I expect youíd be on call 24/7. No time for a personal life, always digging up old cadavers or dragging away new ones. That would be a great angle for a novel ó The Secret Life of Albert, the Half-Crazed Albanian Dwarf. Told from the underlingís perspective.
William Michaelian: Youíre right. I love it. And youíll be glad to know that when you just said ďhalf-crazed Albanian dwarf assistant,Ē I immediately thought of Albert as a dwarf-assistant ó an assistant to dwarves. I wonder how Dr. Zarkov and Albert met. Thatís another thing thatís rarely discussed in these scientist-dwarf relationships.
John Berbrich: Youíre right. Maybe some kind of underground periodical full of news, mad scientist listings, personal ads: ďCrazed or half-crazed assistant needed. Experience a must.Ē Something like that.
William Michaelian: Dwarf conventions. Lanterns. Candles. Lightning rods. And, of course, the obituaries. What do these scientists and assistants eat, anyway? Or is eating even necessary for them?
John Berbrich: Iím not sure I want to know what they eat.
William Michaelian: Why? Afraid it might be liverwurst? Or kidney beans, maybe?
John Berbrich: Actually I love liverwurst. I suppose they could open a little restaurant or cafe, one that specializes in that sort of dining. Iím thinking of rib-eye steak & pork butt.
William Michaelian: Of course. Okay, I admit it: I, too, enjoy liverwurst. Used to, anyway. Havenít had any for years. Havenít seen it. I guess I havenít been looking. I used to make a point of looking for tamales, too, but I gave that up a few years ago. Now I look for big buckets of lard. But I only find small buckets. We do buy the occasional pork roast. Weíre having one tomorrow, in fact. It isnít pork butt, but that doesnít matter, because I always refer to pork roast as pork butt roast.
John Berbrich: I like saying that, Pork Butt Roast. Pork Butt Roast. Three monosyllables, each w/ equal stress. Pork Butt Roast. Mmmmm.
William Michaelian: Ah, then you understand. Very therapeutic. Each word carries the same weight and value, and each heralds its own miracle. Together, a tender, tasty, aromatic paradise.
John Berbrich: Man, youíre making me hungry. What time are you eating? I can probably get there in about 12 hours.
William Michaelian: Welcome! By then weíll have eaten and be ready to eat again. Leftovers! With little red spuds. And this great soup Dollface makes that would be clam chowder, if it had clams in it.
John Berbrich: You know, Iíve never been a fan of clams. But I make a popular corn chowder. Well, itís snowing again ó no way Iíll make it to the airport in time. Iíll just have to prepare myself a sandwich. Maybe we have some liverwurst.....
William Michaelian: Maybe even some liverwurst butt roast. This particular soup has corn, peas, squash, carrots, and broccoli, and a thick potato base, and milk. Very tasty. It reminds me of clam chowder, so I call it clam chowder. By the way, Vahan and I stopped off at Goodwill, and, wouldnít you know it, they just happened to have a nice solid oak bookshelf for only twenty-nine dollars, so we lugged it home. Itís already full.
John Berbrich: Full of what?
William Michaelian: Good will.
John Berbrich: Oh. I thought it might be books.
William Michaelian: I agree, that seems logical enough. And I certainly could have said books. I wish now that I had. But I was disarmed by your question.
John Berbrich: Oh. I see. Itís only that I didnít want to assume.
William Michaelian: I appreciate that. Would you believe me now if I said the new shelf is indeed full of books?
John Berbrich: I do indeed. Any special subject or just a delicious assortment?
William Michaelian: Ah-ha. I havenít said it yet. But I will. Okay. Are you ready? Here it is: the shelf is full of books. No special subject, just stuff Iíve accumulated at random. Some Iíve mentioned here, others on my And I Quote page. A very recent example is the ďJohn BullĒ edition of the New English Dictionary, published by Odhams Press Limited, London, in 1932. It has 1,300 pages and set me back a whole $1.95.
John Berbrich: Whoa. You really got me that time. Weíve discussed dictionaries earlier, of course, to our mutual satisfaction. John Bull, huh? That is a great name. They should sell John Bull Stout to go w/ it, or porter, or maybe an ale. Or why not simply call the brew John Bull. A frothy companion to some deep reading.
William Michaelian: Itís definitely an inspiring name. By the way, hereís what it says on Page 135, under bull (1): John Bull: The English people personified; an Englishman. Thereís also a section that contains foreign phrases. Hereís one in Latin that caught my eye: Fama nihil est celerius ó Nothing travels more swiftly than scandal.
John Berbrich: A wise observation. This reminds me of the section in Walden where our old friend Thoreau speaks of learning ancient tongues. He says, ďIt is worth the expense of youthful days and costly hours, if you learn only some words of an ancient language, which are raised out of the trivialness of the street, to be perpetual suggestions and provocations.Ē
William Michaelian: I remember that statement. Itís definitely akin to Emersonís ďEvery word was once a poem.Ē And while weíre on the subject of words ó if indeed weíre ever off the subject ó here are a couple from the Burns glossary Iíve been working on: first we have clinkumbell, which means the church bell-ringer, and then we have clishmaclaver, which means idle conversation or gossip. Lovely, arenít they?
John Berbrich: Lovely, indeed. Clishmaclaver looks as though it would be related to ďpalaver,Ē idle or flattering speech. Iíd love to hear Burns recite these poems in person. Perhaps we can persuade him to visit us at the Junk Poem Shop.
William Michaelian: I think heíll visit of his own accord if the conditions are right. We just need to tap into the right wavelength. The right dimension. The right color and sound. In fact, whoís to say he isnít sitting beside us at this very moment?
John Berbrich: You mean, like, both of us? Simultaneously? Weíre 3000 miles apart. At least I think we are. I really have no proof.
William Michaelian: Exactly. And thatís the beauty of it. I know Iím not prepared to make that assumption. There was a time, but not anymore. It was too neat. Too much of a tidy little bundle. Iím here, youíre there, heís dead, weíre alive ó itís like having a built-in excuse.
John Berbrich: Itís all so Existential. Itís so Zen. Willie, youíre absolutely correct. The problem is keeping the Skepticism separate from the Cynicism. One of my favorite quotes is this one by Oscar Wilde ó ďA Cynic is a man who knows the price of everything but the value of nothingĒ ó which I believe is germane to our conversation.
William Michaelian: Not only that, it would make an excellent subtitle. Hmm. Maybe I should add that to the top of the page. Or maybe a different quote for each page. Something to ponder, eh? Meanwhile, seventeen syllables later . . .
One last apple
fell from the tree.
It looked at me
then began to rot.
John Berbrich: Who was inspired ó you or the apple? Whatever, that is a hell of an apple. Sounds like itís doing everything on purpose ó falling, looking at you, rotting. You are the helpless bystander, watching. But you write the poem down. Very nice scene. Making me smile right now. A crab apple? I can see it w/ a sour, almost mean face. Determined to fall, to rot.
William Michaelian: Interesting. As I see it, the apple and the observer are both inspired, each by the other. Itís just one of those lucky moments that come along when weíre done assuming and therefore open to anything.
John Berbrich: Ah, yes. Possibilities. I hear theyíre endless.
William Michaelian: Yeah, I hear that too. But they could be finite. Of course, thatís another possibility.
John Berbrich: Man, this is some heavy stuff. How much is infinity plus one?
William Michaelian: The answer is simple: a strawberry milkshake.
John Berbrich: Have you been studying Zen?
William Michaelian: Possibly. I donít know. How does one tell?
John Berbrich: Well, that all depends on how one defines Zen.
William Michaelian: I guess it does. Itís funny, though. It seems like it should depend more on what Zen is, rather than on what one says it is. And yet if enough people define it in a certain way, then, in their minds, at least, thatís what it is. On the other hand, would Zen exist if there were no one here to define it?
John Berbrich: I think that if no one existed, there would be no Zen.
William Michaelian: A beautiful, poignant statement. This would make a great poem or story ó the death of Zen. The last person on earth dies, taking Zen with him.
John Berbrich: Yeah. But what if itís a trick? What happens after the last person dies, & then, under a rock or in a bog or something, a little Zen peeks out? What then?
William Michaelian: Hmm. Well, maybe Zen knows something we donít. Or maybe the trick is on Zen. Maybe Zen is scared, and wonders what to do now that itís alone. Finally, after searching several months for meaningful work, Zen commits suicide, or maybe it just files for unemployment.
John Berbrich: Yes, but youíve got to work for so many weeks to collect anything. Looks like Zen is in a bad way.
William Michaelian: You mean after all the good Zen has done in the world, it canít even get unemployment? Jeez. What a world.
John Berbrich: Yeah, I know. Itís a sick planet. Now Iím depressed.
William Michaelian: You are? Iím sorry. Itís all my fault. So ó how do you define Zen?
John Berbrich: Zen? Itís that dead thing over there.
William Michaelian: Wow. You really are depressed.
John Berbrich: But I digress. Zen is one of those slippery concepts, but it often seems to mean a way of looking at the world without preconceived notions, without bias or prejudice ó to see it exactly as it really is, without illusion, or self-delusion.
William Michaelian: To see and accept the dead thing and a strawberry milkshake on their own equal terms. Itís funny, but I have never really tried to define Zen. I tend to think of it as a subtle combination of patience and humor.
John Berbrich: I think that those two qualities are related to Zen. Zen is also mindfulness of where one is right now ó not thinking about 10 minutes ago or 10 minutes from now. Itís feeling the air of every breath as it passes into & out of your lungs. Itís feeling the fabric of your clothes prickle across your skin. Itís really tasting the taste of the food youíre eating ó that strawberry milkshake, for instance ó not your idea of the taste. Alan Watts said that life without Zen is like eating the menu instead of the meal. Itís like being really awake.
William Michaelian: You realize, of course, that youíve just described my three-month-old grandson. Come to think of it, Zen would make a nice nickname.
John Berbrich: I like that. It would turn into Zenny, of course. ďZenny, get out of there!Ē Other variants would include Zender, Zennish, or Zenling. ďCome here, my little Zenling.Ē A sweet domestic scene.
William Michaelian: Sure, and then thereís Zen laundry detergent, helping you rediscover your clothes. And Zen Van Lines, taking all the effort out of moving. Not to mention that great board game, Zen, which has no rules and never ends.
John Berbrich: Willie, your entrepreneurial talents are leaking all over the place. But just think ó in a game without rules, how could anyone cheat?
William Michaelian: Said the Zen master. You know, your question is remarkably similar to ďWhat is the sound of one hand clapping?Ē Not quite as poetic, though.
John Berbrich: Nice dodge. Yet, youíre right. Why am I fooling around w/ all of this far eastern stuff? I should be studying quarks & quasars & all of those real examples of wonder & paradox. I mean, is any of that scientific stuff true, or is it just a postulate based on some equation that doesnít quite add up?
William Michaelian: I wouldnít know. When I hear terms like quark and quasar my eyes glaze over. I guess itís that old ďWhen I Heard the Learníd AstronomerĒ thing.
John Berbrich: Whitman hit it right on there! Yet still, just the words themselves fascinate one. Think of it: x-rays, gamma rays, protons, photons, black dwarf, neutron star, k-shell, molecule. These words are all so evocative. This is one reason I had trouble in school as a little kid. The teacher would start talking about the structure of the atom & so on, & I would go all agog over the mystery & the cool-sounding words....& by the time I emerged from my reverie weíd be on chapter three & Iíd be hopelessly behind for the rest of the year. I think I had what they would today call a learning disorder. I could have been medicated.
William Michaelian: Ah, yes ó the perfect remedy for imaginitive students. After all, why should the teachers be the only ones who are medicated?
John Berbrich: The drugs are a sort of weapon, used to get students in line, make them behave. I suppose some really need them, or need something. I would much prefer a school system thatís not so structured according to age. When you master this or that subject, you move on. Whatís the rush? Weíre competing w/ other countries & weíre not doing so well. Competition, competition. I guess thatís the human race. No way to bow out gracefully.
William Michaelian: Yeah, none of that really has anything to do with real learning, real discovery. It has nothing to do with encouraging kids in their talents, or helping them find out what their talents are. And it seems so contrary to human nature to herd so many kids together into the same classroom, and to demand and expect order.
John Berbrich: Itís certainly contrary to my nature. Public education is like fast-food ó you get what you pay for. When I was in elementary school, it was 50 students for each teacher. Ah, who cares; I had a good time & Iíve done okay. Learned how to spell too. Can do my sums. I can identify all 50 states by their shape on a map. But I still wonder about quarks & quasars.
William Michaelian: Quarks and quasars. I know quarks are mischievous little chubby fellows of field and fen who love to climb up on lumpy stone houses and run around on peopleís roofs at night. But what is a quasar?
John Berbrich: I think a quasar is the offspring of an unholy ďallianceĒ between a quark & a commissar. Apparently this was big in 19th century Russian folklore. Thrill-seeking commissars, bored w/ city life, ventured into the dark woods & mated w/ unsuspecting female quarks. The official punishment for this unearthly act was banishment to Siberia, but no record exists of even a single commissar being sent to that gigantic ice-box.
William Michaelian: Not surprising. I guess when you get right down to it, the quark menfolk were amazing simpletons. But youíd think out of sheer primitive instinct they would have ganged up on those commissars and given them the beating of their lives. Unless they were paid off, or sent to work on railroads.
John Berbrich: This sounds like the outline for that novel that Dostoevsky never got around to writing. Actually I think it was a collaboration w/ Gogol. Didnít work out though.
William Michaelian: Probably because they got tangled up in Gogolís overcoat. It would have been inevitable, what with Dostoevskyís nervous habit of pacing.
John Berbrich: The story I heard was that Gogol lost his nose in Dostoevskyís beard. Those Russians ó itís hard to tell the fact from the fiction.
William Michaelian: Thatís because their fact is fiction. And vice-versa. In other words, they have a more colorful grasp of things. Noses turning up in breakfast rolls and then parading about as officers ó makes perfect sense to me.
John Berbrich: I didnít know you had Russian ancestry, Willie. Although I suppose there is a little bit of the Ruskie in each of us.
William Michaelian: I like to think so. I feel it especially in winter, when I go outside and survey the frozen step.
John Berbrich: Nice. Now see if you can work Vladivostok into a pun.
William Michaelian: A true Russian always feels lonely when he hears the lowing of Vladivostok. Thatís the best I can do on short notice.
John Berbrich: Thatís not bad. I can almost hear those cold bovines now. Flat barren fields, snowy wastes. The frigid barmaids w/ their snowy waists. A wind blowing down from the Arctic. Almost as lonely as a distant train whistle.
William Michaelian: Ah, yes ó thatís so much more musical than the closing bell after a day of heavy trading at the Vladivostok Market.
John Berbrich: The Cossacks! Theyíre asking 20 rubles for a bunch of frozen bananas ó at this time of year! And Iím just about all out of wodka.
William Michaelian: Curses! It would be a shame to hitch up Natasha in this nasty weather. Poor girl, working her fingers to the bone. Maybe you should use the horse instead.
John Berbrich: Great idea, except the neighbors have eaten the horse! What now, Comrade Willie? Eat the neighbors?
William Michaelian: Well, I guess thatís an option. But indirectly youíd also be eating the horse. And whatever the horse ate. And youíd still be no closer to replenishing your vodka supply.
John Berbrich: And thatís a serious consideration. Have they thought about running vodka through the cityís pipes, like other countries run water? That way youíd never run out.
William Michaelian: Pipes? The city has no pipes. Why donít you bring that up at the next revolution?
John Berbrich: Which reminds me of that Manifesto we were writing. Howís it coming?
William Michaelian: This is the manifesto.
John Berbrich: Oh, thatís right. I seem to be losing my anarchistic edge.
William Michaelian: Brilliant! I say we leave that in.
John Berbrich: I dare you to take it out.
William Michaelian: Too late. The cementís already dry.
John Berbrich: Why are you always so far ahead of me?
William Michaelian: Iím not. Iím so far behind, it seems like Iím ahead.
John Berbrich: Oh, you mean youíre lapping yourself.
William Michaelian: Something like that. Anarchistically speaking, that is.
John Berbrich: But a lot gets lost in translation ó Lapland, laptops, lap dogs. You know what I mean.
William Michaelian: Yes. Thatís what worries me. On the other hand, if Manifesto were a place name, where would it be, and could we get there by train?
John Berbrich: It sounds like a place out in Wyoming or maybe Nebraska. Unfortunately, itís roughly 100 miles from the nearest town, in either direction. Manifesto, Wyoming ó ďyou canít git there from here,Ē says the farmer, as he leans against the hood of his pickup truck.
William Michaelian: The rascal. He didnít even mention the annual Spaghetti Festival.
John Berbrich: Well, they donít want strangers there. Thereís barely enough meatballs for the locals.
William Michaelian: Ah, yes ó the meatball mines were depleted years ago. Iím beginning to see why no oneís heard of this place. Hard times, hard times in Manifesto. One abandoned meatball elevator near a rail line where the ties have long since been pulled up and burned to survive the cold Wyoming winters. These days the entire town would fit on a postcard. The wind blowing through the old dance hall sounds like a mournful banjo being plucked in a minor key.
John Berbrich: I wonder what they do here for work now? Say, Willie ó what kind of bird is that, the big one w/ the cruel, hooked beak & the squinty, baleful eyes? Uh-oh, heís looking right at
William Michaelian: Drat. Itís that pesky waiter again. Uh, would you mind? I seem to be a little bit low on funds.
John Berbrich: I was gonna ask you. Iím afraid weíre gonna be washing dishes again, pal.
William Michaelian: Ah. Well, in that case, why donít we order another bottle? That way heís sure to get his moneyís worth, and we can continue with our manifesto.
John Berbrich: You know, Comrade ó we could beat this guy up & then drink until we started leaking.
William Michaelian: An admirable goal, mind you. But that beak worries me.
John Berbrich: Here, Iíll distract him while you give him the old one-two, the way you gave it to that cheeky cab driver back in Trochee, Kansas, remember?
William Michaelian: Trochee! Ha-ha-ha! Yes, I do remember. But I thought we struck that paragraph. Oh, well. We can reinstate it if you like. Have you seen my feather duster? If I strike him with it, it will start him sneezing.
John Berbrich: But then weíll have to bless him.
William Michaelian: Youíre right. We mustnít forget our manners. In fact, I think we should perform the long version, with altar boys and a full choir. Then we can sacrifice him right over there, on the rim of that volcano.
John Berbrich: Not a bad idea.†We could post it on You Tube.†But do you think the ritual should be executed in the Eastern or Western style?†It makes a difference regarding vestments & songs ó & the sort of knife we use, too.†Remember, God is in the details.
William Michaelian: In that case, weíll let Him be in the choir. He can sing tolerably well ó does great bird imitations. Iím torn, though, between the Eastern and Western styles. Do you have anything in a Northern?
John Berbrich: This North-by-Northwest would suit you just fine.†Here, try it on.†No-no, wait ó the zipper's on the other side.†That's it.†And the hat ó tilt it a little.†Great.†You look positively alchemical.†The women wonít be able to leave you alone.
William Michaelian: On the other hand, Iíd hate to be a distraction. You know me ó mild, unassuming. I like to blend in. Oh! Those Viking horns are nice. Tempting . . . nah, I couldnít.
John Berbrich: But look ó the horns are detachable!†Just pop them off after a fierce battle & youíve got two handy & fashionable beer steins. Look, buy two of the hats & Iíll throw in this trendy snake-eye studded belt.†You really canít go wrong.
William Michaelian: Sold! You got me with those beer steins. Tell me ó are chariots in this year? I noticed one in the parking lot when we first came in.
John Berbrich: That belongs to one of our Mediterranean salesmen, Vito.†These high gas prices have modified his mode of travel considerably. No one else is driving them these days, but if youíd like to make an offer......?
William Michaelian: Not without a horse. Or will Vito pull the thing?
John Berbrich: No, Vitoís busy.†And weíre fresh out of horses.†But if itís transportation youíre after, why, come right over here.†Just around this corner.†Up this ladder, watch your step.†And donít put your full weight on that rung, itís got a nasty crack in it.†Okay, through this hatch.†Thatís it.†Weíre almost there.†Through this door. Another door.†Wait, hereís the key. Now, slide down this firemanís pole. Just do what I do, itís sort of fun. Okay.†Whew.†Hereís our back stock.†You got your G-14ís, your F-11ís. Hereís an 832 Questor model, one of our favorites.†What do you think?
William Michaelian: I think youíre absolutely nuts. These are chickens, for Godís sake. But thatís all right. At least ours will be the only manifesto ever written in a hen house.
John Berbrich: Well, thatís the idea.†And for breakfast, eggs are provided daily.†Hey, I gotta tell you.†We went to see the poet Cornelius Eady last night at St. Lawrence University.†What an excellent reading.†He read his work for well over an hour, talking casually to the audience, filling in background to the writing of the poems.†I bought one of his books, You Donít Miss Your Water, which he signed for me.†We talked afterwards for a bit.†His work is funny, surprising, personal.†Really good stuff.†And I didnít know that heís from upstate New York, Rochester.†Practically a neighbor.
William Michaelian: I keep telling you, thereís poets in them thar hills. I remember reading something about Eady, but it was quite some time back. I think it was in connection with an NEA award, or a Guggenheim, or something similar. Maybe thereís mention of that in the book you bought.
John Berbrich: Pretty good memory.†He was awarded a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation, another from the Rockefeller Foundation, & yet one more from Lila Wallace Readerís-Digest. This is culled from the blurb on the back of the book, published in 2004 so it's pretty recent.†Heís been nominated for at least two Pulitzers, one for poetry, another for drama.†Right now heís director of creative writing at Notre Dame.†Decent credentials.
William Michaelian: Indeed. I hear they even pay for a job like that. Weird. Say, where do things stand with the next Yawp? Will it be out soon, or did I miss one in the shuffle?
John Berbrich: Nay, you havenít missed one.†Weíre printing the Yawps this weekend & will mail them soon.†Right now theyíre being flattened out by boards & heavy weights on our dining room table.†You will receive a copy, donít worry.†I believe your name appears in the credits.
William Michaelian: Oh, really? In a highly compressed form, it sounds like. Maybe you need one of those big commercial presses they use in dry cleaning establishments. On the other hand, I think I prefer the timbers and anvils. And ropes. And ancient creaking gears.
John Berbrich: We donít have any gears just pine boards & cinder blocks.†Right now weíre totally snowed in ó been snowing all night & still coming down pretty hard. So Iíll be splitting my time today between the driveway (shovel) & the office (pen, keyboard).†And the dining room, of course, adjusting our primitive squishing mechanisms between bites.
William Michaelian: I know one thing ó Iíll never look at a Yawp the same way again. You know, sometime you might try curing a batch in a smokehouse. It would be great to open the envelope and take out a hickory-scented Yawp. Better than maple, I think.
John Berbrich: Thatís a great idea ó scented Yawps.†Actually, itís not too far from an idea I had for the cover of the next issue.†But I canít tell you yet....
William Michaelian: You donít have to. I already know what it is ó a talking cover.
John Berbrich: Tell me ó have you already designed this remarkable singularity?
William Michaelian: Designed? You mean as in figured out how to make it work? Not yet, but if youíre interested Iíll get right on it.
John Berbrich: The most important factor, of course, is that of cost-effectiveness. Thereís no use spending thousands of dollars on some fancy cover, however artistic, if weíre taking a financial bath in the process.†Maybe your elves could come up w/ something thatís appealing to both the eye & ear, yet gentle on the wallet.
William Michaelian: Yeah, well, these particular elves have a peculiar relationship with money. They eat it and use it to scrub their little windshields. And yet theyíll give their lives for a good cause. Embedded elves ó thatís it! Why didnít I think of it before?
John Berbrich: I donít know.†You tell me.†Why didnít you think of it before?
William Michaelian: Probably because itís a bad idea, since elves are highly flammable. It could lead to lawsuits, even a class action suit on behalf of your subscribers. Unless, of course, you print a disclaimer: Do not read while smoking or near open flame ó which in itself would make a good cover.
John Berbrich: Thatís true ó & no animals were killed, maimed, or in any way injured during the creation of this magazine.
William Michaelian: Although that might be hard to prove. There could be a flea or dust mite being crushed by those cinder boards and pine blocks of yours right this very minute.
John Berbrich: Well, you donít have to turn us in, yí know.
William Michaelian: That sounds almost like an admission of guilt. How about taping a magic bean on the inside of each cover instead? Didnít you tell me once that you store a lot of beans for the winter? Some of them must be magic by now.
John Berbrich: But thatís dangerous too.†There are three kinds of magic that I know of: white magic, black magic, & Magic Johnson.†Itís not something to fool around with.†You yourself mentioned lawsuits.†Do your flammable elves double (or triple) as paralegals?
William Michaelian: Itís listed on their business cards, but Iíve never seen them demonstrate that particular skill. Theyíre very good, however, at topiary. Wait ó Iíve got it! . . . again. What about a bonsai edition? You could build a greenhouse and cultivate the covers individually.
John Berbrich: Again, not a bad idea, but I donít have the patience.†And besides, mailing costs would be astronomical. Although we could sell them on e-bay, charge for shipping & handling.†Iím thinking now that it would just be simpler to make them like we always have, w/ regular paper & a stapler.†Hey, how about edible Yawps?†Delicious, & plenty of protein.
William Michaelian: You are what you eat ó I like it. For the introspective Lenten season, you could have a meatless issue made of lentils and garbanzos.
John Berbrich: You & your beans!†Fish would work too for the meatless issue ó although Iíve never really understood why fish isnít included in the category of meat. When I was a kid, we couldnít eat meat on Fridays, although eating fish was fine.†It seems as though either is the eating of the flesh of an animal. How do you feel about this?
William Michaelian: I ate fish sticks in the school cafeteria every Friday for years, and not once did I think, even in that form, that fish was a vegetable. Besides, itís not hard to do entirely without meat for a day, or many days or even years for that matter. In the Armenian Church, during the forty-day Lenten period, the faithful are expected to abstain from meat altogether. Thatís where the lentils and garbanzos come in. But itís oneís attitude and state of mind that count. There is certainly nothing inherently profane about the flesh of an animal. And a rotten person can eat nothing but vegetables and still remain rotten.
John Berbrich: Thatís true.†And I know this sweet man, an older guy, who eats nothing but rotten, smelly Limburger cheese.†Go figure!
William Michaelian: Iíve never heard of a Limburger-only diet. I wonder how long heís been on it. Is it safe to be near him?
John Berbrich: And a sweet person can eat a greasy cheeseburger & remain sweet. Notice the wonderful balance of the universe.
William Michaelian: So is that what you call Yin and Yang, or is that some other mysterious principle?
John Berbrich: I suppose we could consider it a sub-division of Yin & Yang, a kind of subsidiary corollary or something. A balance of complementary opposites. Aristotleís Golden Mean. Confuciusís Middle Way. The balance, so you donít fall over. Limburger alone will make you topple.
William Michaelian: Are you saying, then, that if enough rotten people eat Limburger, it will throw the universe temporarily out of whack?
John Berbrich: Actually, this might generate a whole lot of sweet people eating ice cream, just as a natural mechanism to counteract the imbalance caused by the Limburger Effect. Thereís got to be a mathematical formula for it somewhere.
William Michaelian: Hmm. Sounds like this kicks free will right out the window.
John Berbrich: Not entirely. Think of it as a sort of imaginary number.
William Michaelian: Which ó free will, or Limburger?
John Berbrich: Free will. There is nothing imaginary about Limburger, as anyone who has ever been standing anywhere near a block of it can tell you.
William Michaelian: Good point. But what is an imaginary number? The two words seem to contradict each other.
John Berbrich: I think weíve talked about this before. Itís a number that logically canít exist yet must exist for certain essential equations to work out properly. Quite a mathematical pickle. And donít tell me the pickle goes w/ the Limburger
William Michaelian: I wouldnít think of it. So, then. Apparently there are essential equations, but for some reason they canít stand up on their own, and so we add something ó a number of our choosing ó that will make them work. Is that what youíre saying? Are the equations essential before or after the imaginary numbers are introduced?
John Berbrich: Both, & neither, simultaneously.
William Michaelian: That makes sense. And free will can be thought of as an imaginary number that makes one of these equations work?
John Berbrich: It makes all of them work ó if you just believe it.
William Michaelian: Free will makes all essential equations work. Okay, got it. Imaginary will essentially equates to both working numbers, or neither simultaneously. And Limburger has nothing to do with it. Now, what about imaginary equations? Do those also require a mathematical pickle?
John Berbrich: But what would one need an imaginary equation for? To solve an imaginary problem? Ah, I see what youíre getting at.
William Michaelian: I knew you would. Simply put, to be free from will, one must imagine a problem and an equation which simultaneously and logically canít exist, but must if the contradiction is to work properly.
John Berbrich: Or to put it another way, we must imagine a solution to a nonexistent problem, then develop the problem & its opposite, using parallel systems of logic, analysis, & induction, then notify Stephen Hawking & tell him to take a long vacation ó weíve got the whole shebang figured out.
William Michaelian: Exactly. There might even be a Nobel in it. But here ó let me help illustrate it with a little poem I wrote:
Yin and Yang
I put out the cat;
thatís one too many,
the night replied.
Okay, maybe it doesnít help illustrate it. But isnít that also the point?
John Berbrich: Inversely, yes. But at the same time I gotta say that I like the poem, although Iím not sure which one is Yin or Yang, you or the cat. Or the night. Youíre right, maybe that is the
William Michaelian: That is, if the point itself isnít also imagined. Come to think of it, maybe that is the point: the point is simultaneously real and imagined, and the real and imagined are interchangeable. Doesnít that make sense? Granted, it doesnít need to, but ó
John Berbrich: ...But...but...but if we have free will, & the real & the imagined are truly interchangeable, then we really can create our own universe. And it doesnít matter at all whether itís real or imagined. Jeepers, weíve come full circle.
William Michaelian: Yes. Again. Perhaps now we should explore whatís inside the circle. Or outside, if youíd rather tackle that.
John Berbrich: Actually Iím feeling rather hungry at the moment. You got anything to eat around here?
William Michaelian: Certainly. And it just so happens that itís the perfect way to explore whatís inside a circle: pancakes! ó slathered with butter and honey of course. And another circle: a nice cup of hot coffee. Unless youíd prefer tea.
John Berbrich: No, no ó coffeeís fine, thanks. Black, thatís right. And I love pancakes, but hold the honey, okay? Itís really too sweet for me. Iíll take a weighty slab of butter though & any syrup you might have, although I know itís out of season. If youíre out of syrup we could substitute molasses, blackstrap, thatís it. Wow! That coffeeís hot!
William Michaelian: Darn right itís hot! When it comes to coffee I donít fool around. Anyway, itíll help thin out the molasses. Pretty tasty manhole covers, eh?
John Berbrich: Not bad, Willie, not bad at all. You make these yourself? Hey, pass the ketchup, will you?
William Michaelian: Okay, but go easy on this stuff. Itís rather volatile. In fact, itís not even ketchup. Not anymore.
John Berbrich: Blecch! What the *%^-#/* is it?!
William Michaelian: What is it? Itís the price you pay for insulting my pancakes. Ketchup,
John Berbrich: You got any beer I can wash this swill down with?
William Michaelian: Now thatís a reasonable request. Of course I have beer. How many bottles would you like? Thereís some gin in the bathtub if youíre interested.
John Berbrich: Tell you what, Willie ó Iíll buy you a bottle of your best. The day is degenerating marvelously.
William Michaelian: Thanks. Youíre not the first to say that about my cooking.
John Berbrich: And not the last, that would be my guess.†Now whatís behind this curiously rococo door?†Ah, so thatís†where youíve been hiding all the elves.
William Michaelian: Yes. And oddly enough, some of them have been asleep for years. Iím a bit concerned, actually.
John Berbrich: I donít blame you. They canít get much housework done while theyíre snoozing. Still, it saves you the trouble & expense of feeding them. Speaking of which ó this is a subject thatís often troubled me & now that Iíve got you here, you being an expert & all that, I feel that itís a good time, a propitious moment you might say, to ask: what do elves eat, anyway?
William Michaelian: That, Iím afraid, is a secret. Itís not that I donít want to tell you. I simply donít know. Iíve never seen them eating, only scrubbing their little pots and pans. No bones, so perhaps theyíre vegetarians. On the other hand, have you seen their teeth? Well, of course not. Theyíre hidden by those . . . those . . . beards. But here ó if you pull the beard away from that oneís mouth and use this ruler to pry his jaws apart, maybe we can get to the bottom of this question once and for all.
John Berbrich: Iím really not keen about getting all of that green elf drool on my hands. Do you have a pair of gloves or something? Or perhaps youíd like to tug on the beard whilst I ply the ruler?
William Michaelian: Then again, what about the smell. Jeez. By the way ó this reminds me of another little poem I wrote recently:
He made up his mind
while she was hanging up
his coat ó donít ask her
about the skeletons.
Granted, it does us no good here. Very well, then. The beard it is.
John Berbrich: Hold on there. Lovely little poem. Although what we have here are elves, not skeletons, & thereís hardly an avalanche of them. Still, I can see a tenuous connection. The closet, I suppose. And yes, the beard. Willie, I really do suggest that you slip on a pair of gloves. That dribbling green foam ó it almost looks toxic.
William Michaelian: They always do that when they sleep. I think itís some sort of primitive defense mechanism. Very effective. But harmless, I assure you. See? It wipes right off. . . . I said, it wipes . . . right . . .
John Berbrich: There you go, man. Youíre stuck.
William Michaelian: Uh, you can use the ruler now.
John Berbrich: Forget it! Then weíll both be stuck to the somnolent rascalís face. I donít know how youíre going to wiggle out of this one, my friend.
William Michaelian: Okay ó so you do have matches, I assume. Set fire to his beard. And his. And his. And ó
John Berbrich: Why donít we just saw the head off. Then you can soak your hand in a vat of sulfuric acid. Youíll be free in no time.
William Michaelian: Yes, but that might hurt him.
John Berbrich: Youíve such a tender heart, Willie. Tender enough to break the hardest stone, enough to melt the coldest ice, enough to bring a madman to tears. So we donít want to hurt anyone. Now what?
William Michaelian: Well, at this point, I think the best thing ó in fact the only thing ó to do is to confess. You know all those stories and poems? I didnít write them. They did.
John Berbrich: Wait a minute ó whose stories and poems? Your stories and poems? Your elves wrote them for you? And for this you keep them locked up in a closet? Here I thought you were a sweet, tenderhearted fellow. How wrong I was. Youíre a devil, Willie, a demon. Youíre not human. Youíre a cad, a villain. Youíre a deceiver. Youíre bad, Willie, a rogue, a scoundrel. Youíre not to be trusted. I canít believe it. Please tell me this is an April Foolís trick.
William Michaelian: You left out rotten. But if you recall, the door to this curious chamber was not locked. This is entirely a lifestyle choice on their part. Yes, my tactful friend, youíve stumbled onto one of the worldís greatest literary secrets ó a stable of writers far more dangerous than those who wrote the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books. Wait ó is today really the First of April? What a funny coincidence!
John Berbrich: Aye, it is indeed. And tomorrowís the second.
William Michaelian: Ah-ha. In that case, I take it all back. Anyway, it hardly seems fair to blame it on the elves. How about you? Is there anything youíd like to confess?
John Berbrich: No.
William Michaelian: Oh. Okay. How about a joke, then? Is there a joke youíd like to tell? Iíll bet there is. No? An anecdote? An old family story? Hmm. No story either, eh? I know ó how are you at delivering eulogies? Looks like Iím going to need one.
John Berbrich: I could make up a decent eulogy & deliver it w/ style. What do you need it for?
William Michaelian: Take your pick ó me, or this poor innocent slimy elf Iím attached to.
John Berbrich: I could do a double, how about that? Tell you what, Iíll give you a group rate, a two for one sale. Sound good?
William Michaelian: Fabulous. I donít know what impresses me most ó your talent or your sensitivity. How much? As you might recall from our skirmish with the waiter, my walletís on the thin side.
John Berbrich: I was thinking more along the lines of a series of sumptuous feasts. Not flapjacks & ketchup, but platters of more exotic fare, something both delicious & copious. Can you manage, O Chef?
William Michaelian: Are you kidding? If I could do that, I wouldnít need the eulogy. Thereís peanut butter in the kitchen, though. Itís all yours. Unless weíre still at our table, being stalked by that evil-beaked waiter. Either way, I do know one thing: weíre not in Kansas anymore. So. What do you say? Should we take this out or leave it in?
John Berbrich: Iíd just as soon leave it in, myself. Oh, I bet the elves do all the cooking for you, too. Why donít you wake the sleeping louts up.
William Michaelian: Well, I could. Theyíve been dozing long enough. That one there, my proofreader until he went blind, Ned, has been out for three years now. And that red-haired one over there ó I call him Old Red George, by the way ó heís been plastered against that wall for about six months. Just fell asleep that way, his little fists clenched, in the middle of a tantrum. I donít even remember what it was about. Couldnít have been the working conditions. Oh ó now I remember. He was out of gin. . . . Kronsky! ó here now, you rascal! Wake up! Iíve got somebody Iíd like you to meet. . . . . Thatís odd. A good kick in the ribs usually does it.
John Berbrich: And that one over there, that little female, the one w/ the word Myrna scratched in black marker across her forehead. Whatís her name?
William Michaelian: Myrna, oddly enough. Kronsky wrote that. When theyíre awake, thereís something delightfully awkward and maybe even romantic going on between those two. And I donít know if it means anything, but Kronsky gets a lot of mail. You might even find some of it a few elves deeper in the pile. Probably take a crowbar to get it at, though.
John Berbrich: Is it worth the trouble? I mean, itís elf-mail. Sounds like silly stuff.
William Michaelian: It may well be. Then again, from a stamp-collecting standpoint . . . but I guess thatís just as silly. Well. You see what these elves have done to me. What theyíve reduced me to. Iím open to suggestions.
John Berbrich: Well, I think you should start w/ your elf-image. I mean, everyone needs a certain level of elf-esteem. Perhaps you should try to get in touch w/ your inner-elf, Willie? After all, youíve so many in the closet.
William Michaelian: That I canít deny. You know, of all my psychological problems, I think this one is the worst.
John Berbrich: I believe thereís a school of psychology that suggests that the patient embrace his demons ó or in this case, his elves. You canít hide forever. Go on ó into the closet w/ you.
William Michaelian: Wait! ó you mean all the way in?
John Berbrich: Indeed. What did you think I meant? Now ó git in there! Your slumbering elves await!
William Michaelian: Now hold on just a doggone minute. If theyíre my demons, how come you see them too?
John Berbrich: Theyíre exterior demons, my friend. Iím sure youíve dozens of interior ones too. Now in.
William Michaelian: Interesting. You speak with the command of someone who knows. But how do you know? What is this exterior-interior business, if youíll pardon my curiosity.
John Berbrich: Ach, Willie ó always w/ the questions. To explain ó Iíve been studying psychology for some years now ó on my own, of course. Iíve come up w/ this interior-exterior theory of personal demons (which you quaintly call exterior-interior). But itís no longer a theory. Today, youíve given me proof positive that my theory is true. So itís no longer theory ó itís scientific fact. Thank you, my psychologically disturbed friend.
William Michaelian: Oh, now I understand. What I thought was a conversation all these years, has really been a psychological examination and evaluation. In other words, youíve been humoring me ó time and again trying to coax me into discussing the elves, all the while planting clearer and brighter images of them in my mind. Well ó I wonít be your monster, Dr. Frankenstein. These elves are just as much yours as they are mine. To put it another way, if Iím a nut, then so are you.
John Berbrich: Well then ó itís time you came out of your shell, yuk-yuk. Hey, Iíll buy you a drink ó no hard feelings, okay? Sure Iíve been studying you, but I suspect youíve been studying me too. Letís call it even then. You buy me a drink & Iíll buy you one. You light my cigar, Iíll light yours. However, I refuse to go into the closet w/ you. Itís getting awfully crowded in there.
William Michaelian: I except your magnanimous apology. One other thing ó there was no closet there, no rococo door, until you imagined them.
John Berbrich: Willie ó why do you persist in misunderstanding? Thatís an interior closet, an interior door. And the only thing rococo around here is you. At this point, hope is a small neglected thing. Better perhaps to end it right here.
William Michaelian: Perhaps. But will the end be interior or exterior? Real or imagined? Rococo or Baroque? . . . Hey! What happened to the elves? Where are they?
John Berbrich: Iíll bet theyíre on the next page.