TIME SURGERY: A SUTURED ITINERARY
On March 2-6 2002 I attended the Kellogg/Medill Advanced Management Forum at Northwestern University. I suffered jargon and anecdote intoxication from the very start--a state that lasted the duration of my participation. The dress: business casual. The survival supplies: a fifth of Jim Beam Black label and a markdown copy of Pynchon's Mason & Dixon.
1PM: I'm late and have missed lunch. Coming into the conference room, I see my place card. Of course my name is fucked up. There is something about the hyphen in my name that people ignore. Like a shambling drunk polite folks pretend not to see. So, for the duration, I'm Jeb Allured.
1:11: I've walked right into a J-Crew catalogue. These other business-to-business publishing execs work for bigger, meaner companies than I. They help represent the global-positioning, travel, farming, insurance, pharmaceutical, cosmetic, information-technology and mobile-electronics industries. These are the men and women that we refer to when invoking The Man.
3:10: financial forecasting seminar: Speaker tells a story about how GM was so efficient that it was said they operated one factory using just one man and one dog. The dog was there to bite the man if he fucked anything up.
3:25: we discuss mission statements, values, cash flow.
4:07: "Do not destroy value!"
4:20: after break everyone is talking about Tiger Woods. He's up three, whatever that means.
7:07: dinner break: I'm sitting across from a guy that's a dead ringer for Oliver North. Except for the slight puffiness and dirty blond mustache.
7:08: after some deliberation, I decide not to bring this resemblance to his attention. It seems like a conversation killer.
7:35: session for saving business in tough financial times: "Invent the future!"
7:42: a manager should "be a benevolent dictator."
7:43: "You're only a victim once;after that you're a volunteer."
7:44: "Only change endures."
7:47: only 29 percent of workers, according to a Gallup poll, are engaged in their work. Capitalism triumphs!
8:15: done for the night. Retire to room. Jim Beam on ice. Shower. Stare out my fourth-floor window at the crumpled ice field of Lake Michigan. Lamps in parking lot gleaming like puffy dandelions.
11:05AM: strategic revenue growth segment: "Experience goes beyond _self!"
11:07: tea with lemon. Thought of food makes my throat tight.
11:08: "Change the experience." "Drive the future."
11:14: "Structure serves strategy."
11:19: I am asked to ask myself: what can I do to create and emotional bond with my customers?
1:23PM: still haven't eaten. Product branding seminar: "Segment as far up the food chain as possible."
1:30: "Fate lies in how customers internalize your product." Think of how I can use this as an epigraph in some surrealist story.
3:00: staff efficiency segment: "Get ahead of your customer."
7:30: on way to evening session I happen upon the free snack kiosk for my floor. A glass-fronted refrigerator is stocked with grapefruit juice, Diet Coke, milk, fat-free yogurt, etc. There are spinning chip racks and a microwave for the packets of soup and popcorn. Add this to the heaps of pasta and cakes by the lecture hall and the huge baskets of mints and chocolates in the hall itself. Everyone makes jokes about how many pounds they're packing on, what with all the free eats and three daily sit-down meals. I mention that we should let some homeless people in to graze. No one says anything to that.
11:39: half-drunk, start "M&D."
9:30AM: we're minus one today. A participants' sister had a heart attack last night and was found lying in the snow. No one knows what her condition is.
9:42: we are all too busy. Thus, we are told, we need to perform some Time Surgery, extracting the cancerous bits of daily drear that are diverting our precious attentions.
9:47: sales people who go after big clients: Elephant Hunters.
10:21: log onto Excite at an e-carrel. A bomb just went off at a Filipino airport.
2:11PM: dow has apparently developed genetically modified corn crops that can be powdered for use in pharmaceuticals.
3:10: data mining session: The man sitting behind me reminds me of a melancholy toad.
3:15: "Open a different door!"
4: speaker is a dead ringer for Nancy Reagan.
5:36: back up in my room. Snowing. Gray and cold-looking. The lake-what isn't obscured by a smeary white fog-is dark and marbled with white ice. It looks like an ocean on pause.
8:42: we have the night free. I head out into a blizzard and trudge to the visitor lot. Peter Brotzmann and Walter Perkins are playing the Empty Bottle. I need to be out and away. I haven't been around real humans for three days.
8:51: lost in a maze of snowy Northwestern lots. Turning a corner, I almost hit a red fox. It stops in the roadway to nibble at its haunches then slips through some ice-crusted hedges.
8:52: think: I'm so glad I was there to see that.
9:06: 94 South. In a blizzard we make up our own lanes. It's an improvisation of trying not to get killed.
9:11: the world seems lunar.
9:41: arrive. Drink PBR.
10:01: frenetic and clamorous and busy. One squeaks and belches. The other rattles and hammers. Watching this is nothing like sitting in a lecture hall trying to quantify desire.
11:37: that really cute woman is bartending tonight. The one I used to have a bad crush on. I think she dated someone in Dianogah. And then, later, a better looking man who was probably not in a band.
1:17AM: stumble back to building. Hope fox doesn't jump me. I'm too tired to resist. I'm the ailing wildebeest in a National Geographic documentary.
1:18: no foxes. Man in dreads buzzes me in.
7:28: cotton mouth.
8:30: get handout. Red thumbprint on the paper. Blood or lipstick?
8:37: everyone's already talking about their flights tomorrow. This is the thing about management types. They're always thinking of the next thing. Their lives just bleed from one thing to the next.
8:50: instructor: "Before computers I used to carry around so much paper I was like Ben Franklin coming to Philadelphia."
8:51: turbo capitalism: an accelerating mode of creative destruction.
9:10: I find I'm sitting next to the creator of Diabetes and You, an in-house publication for Walgreens. Type-2 diabetics are highly desirable-demographically. It seems to me that American sloth and gluttony beget disease, which in turn begets a marketable demographic. Again: capitalism triumphs!
2:45PM: "Are you moving the needle?"
4:32: one Sudafed; more tea.
4:40: what would happen if we all performed a pre-mortem on our companies?
7:30: after e-magazine demo, I have risotto cakes and Heineken.
8:48: "Culture is the motivation."
9:05: "We're all looking for the Elders of Zion, the four gnomes, the handful of people who control our fate." I'm sitting in the room with some of those gnomes.
7:53AM: check out. I will never see this room again.
8:40: "Don't go to the Internet looking for true love."
8:47: concept: invisible marketing. Very psy-ops sounding.
8:54: banner hanging in the Proctor & Gamble marketing department: "Perception is reality;reality is not."
10:44: "Demography is destiny."
10:53: in its day, Alcatraz was the only federal prison that provided warm showers. Why? So that prisoners would not use cold showers to acclimate themselves to cold water and thus enable themselves to swim the mile-wide gulf of water separating the facility from the mainland.
11:40: done. Drive home in a daze.
8:10PM: stop into the office. I have 964 e-mails. Find message from my mother wishing me Happy Birthday. She's in Maui, apparently.
8:12: realize I've crossed the rock-star-tragedy threshold.
8.13: feel vague pang at the thought that I have outlived Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison.
8:14: it feels strange to think of myself as older than them. I guess it's too late to die in a blaze of glory.