Monday, December 5, 2011

Conrad's Manifesto

“I hate this fuckin’ life!” exclaimed Conrad, alone in his office on a late afternoon, as he stabbed the pencil sharpener with his pencil.  He uttered these words aloud, though no one could have heard them.  The thirty-eight-year-old civil engineer, divorced father of two sons, wanted to vocalize his grievance, as if somehow the acoustic reverberations of his voice would reify the thoughts in his mind, as if he was an actor in a grand drama: “Conrad Against the Fuckin’ World.”  The disturbed man was writing either a memoir or manifesto; he wasn’t yet sure.  Maybe it was both.  And considering his inability to make decisions—an unfortunate trait he was all too conscious of—the verdict would be out until he finished it.  The words weren’t forthcoming and his frustration was reaching a crescendo.

Conrad’s inner life was a study in turmoil, though no microscope, scalpel, or “lame-ass” therapy (his words) could reveal its lessons.  Something stalked him, a dark figure, relentless, omniscient.  It was an image, a curious anomaly against the backdrop, and given that the landscape was rather bleak and desolate, you’d think he would have gotten a good look at it, this solitary wraith gliding along his psyche.  But it was just out of focus.  Like a conspiracy theory or monster under the bed, it has persisted in poor Conrad’s fertile, overwrought brain, in that tantalizing place where belief and disbelief jockey for position.

Admittedly, another theory for his turbulent mind, at least in its recent bout of turbulence, was having lost his job due to funding cutbacks.  To his mind, his demons and newfound unemployment status were not unrelated.  Unrelenting insomnia had taken its toll on his work productivity.

Whatever the cause, Conrad was once again struggling with metaphoric demons.  Otherwise, how does one explain his mind becoming a clenched fist ready for battle?  With whom was he fighting?  Who was stalking him?  Presumably, the defiantly blank piece of paper on Conrad’s drafting table would eventually give some clues.

Finally, after what seemed like five minutes but was barely shy of an hour, Conrad turned his gaze from the shrubs and tree outside his office window, and pressed the pencil onto the blank sheet of paper.  “These are my demands,” he wrote, as if he were writing a ransom letter and the hostage and hostage-taker were one and the same.  “(1) That life not be so miserable.”

Conrad looked at the laconic statement on the page and, determining that the reader would need a bit of clarification, added an explanation: “I desire to live in a world that rewards those who work hard, not one that punishes diligence and conscientiousness.  People aren’t perfect and I don’t expect miracles.  Moreover, I am willing to accept the existence of evil and malice in the world, to a degree, for evil has managed to endure in our species throughout the centuries, the explanation of which is far beyond my pay grade.  Still, I don’t think it’s asking too much to, say, have job security, a salary commensurate with one’s education, reasonable alimony payments, and children untainted by an Ex’s bitterness.  Is it also so wrong to advocate the destruction of unscrupulous credit card companies?  The corporal punishment of duplicitious politicians who seek only to line their pockets with your gold?  Religious leaders who do likewise?”

With such words, Conrad established a precedent of interjecting commentary after each “demand” in his manifesto-cum-memoir.  Whether explanatory notes would help the reader and not detract from the lucid simplicity of his initial statement is an open question.  But Conrad was too self-conscious, perhaps narcissistic, for his own good; he couldn’t bear the thought of someone misunderstanding or misinterpreting his meaning.

Relatively satisfied with his words thus far, he continued onto the next point, and hurriedly so, lest the blood flowing from his passionate heart toward his writing hand find another outlet.  “(2) That evil people die a violent death and go to the bad place.”  Again, the writer felt compelled to clarify, especially such a belligerent statement with a nasty edge.  He didn’t want to come across as just another angry white whack-job on a rant.  “Don’t get me wrong, dear Reader.  I am a peaceful man, and I generally don’t desire the suffering of another human being.  I wish we could settle our differences without recourse to violence, but sometimes enough is enough.”

Conrad wasn’t lying about being a peaceful guy, not entirely.  He got into a fight only once in his life, when he was in the Navy, and that’s only because a drunken chief petty officer called him a queer in front of his buddies.  He felt duty-bound to deck the rude fellow, though he outranked Conrad; the fight ended up a draw.  Of course, Conrad didn’t mention the dream he had the other night that would contradict his statement about being a peacenik.  Why would he?  In the dream, he came across his therapist, Manfred, sitting in his living room.  Conrad approached him from behind and started to strangle the bald, bespectacled fellow with all his might, saying, “How does this make you feel, Dr. Know-it-All?  Huh?  Why don’t you just share your thoughts on this pain, huh?  What?  You’re slowly dying?  Well, maybe we can just slap some medication on your problem!”

Conrad lost the momentum after his second point.  He looked out the window again, but he wasn’t looking at anything, just staring into nothingness.  After another minute of mindless reverie, he wrote his third demand: (3) That people learn to think as individuals without an agenda.  This odd statement touched upon one of Conrad’s many pet peeves.  He had particularly in mind his neighbor Bill Stanford, who mindlessly spouted right-wing shit he had heard from his drinking buddies.  Drawing upon this example, Conrad explained more generally: “I’m tired of people posing as principled ideologues or essentially acting as spokesmen for some cause that they don’t understand.”

Two more hours went by as Conrad lost himself in bitter thoughts.  Eventually he arrived at ten demands, but he wasn’t satisfied with any of them, and for good reason.  He was repetitive and contradictory.  He read over and over what he had written with furrowed brow and gasps of dissatisfaction.  Despite a perfectionist tendency that left so many projects unfinished throughout his life (including but not limited to a graduate degree, a marriage, and a murder novel), he uncharacteristically decided to come to a conclusion.  He added an epilogue:

I’ve lost my way.  I suppose if I look harder, somehow search more deeply, engage in a bit of introspection as I’m wont to do from time to time (though with little fruit for my labors thus far), Id’ realize that I had never in fact found my way to begin with.  Still, it seems as though I’ve come from some other place and there’s no turning back.  I don’t want to bore you with my meandering thoughts, and I can already picture you rolling your eyes at an egocentric, self-styled Romantic wistfully gazing at his said image at the water’s edge….

What was he to do now?  Should he send this document to the local newspaper in the unlikely prospect of getting it published?  Should he mail it to the White House?  Should he follow up the manifesto with some act of defiance?  He considered launching a protest downtown but he wasn’t a confrontational person.  He even thought about shooting people from a university tower, but he already decided to eschew violence, in keeping with his manifesto.  Besides, such an act was too messy and offered no good endgame.  Conrad contemplated going on a hunger strike, but who would care?  If he were an anarchist, he’d assassinate someone.  If he were a revolutionary, he’d raise a rabble in the streets.  Should he destroy computers and other inventions of modern technology?  No, he wasn't a Neo-Luddite, even if he purposively wrote his manifesto on paper with a #2 pencil. He wasn’t an Ite, Ist, and certainly not an Ism.  He was just….well, Conrad Ellestad.

The building’s cameras show Conrad walking out a side door and across the parking lot toward his car at approximately 7:30 pm.  Investigators found his manifesto in a safe in his garage.  They never found Conrad.  Some say he got a job in Reno.  Others say he’s living in a cabin in Wyoming.  His manifesto left behind more questions than answers.