The Plugged-In Vacation: What's a Beach Without a Fax?

Everything about a late-June morning whispers "vacation."

At 6 a.m., soft sunlight slides under the window shade, becoming the gentlest of alarm clocks. During rush-hour commutes, lighter traffic turns normally lion-like drivers into slightly more lamb-like creatures - less rushed, less aggressive. And in offices, colorful summer clothes play a seasonal role in creating a more relaxed atmosphere, a less harried pace.

It's all enough to make even the most dedicated workers count the days until they can turn off their computers and change their voice mail messages to say, "I'll be on vacation until...."

But wait. This is also a month when the Vacation Gremlins are working overtime, devising ever more clever ways to keep employees mentally shackled to their jobs, wherever they might be.

This summer, for example, Host Marriott Services is installing tabletop personal computers at eight of its United States restaurants - seven in airports and another on the New Jersey Turnpike. For 33 cents a minute, payable by credit card, diners can compute while they chew. By reading their e-mail, surfing the Internet, and calling up data during lunch or dinner, they can prove to their boss - and everyone else - that they're never more than a cyberchip away from work.

If the six-month test proves successful, the company plans to install tabletop computers at a "fairly massive" number of its airport Pizza Huts, Chili's, and Cheers bars. Executives see it as a way to keep customers in restaurants and increase revenue.

This always-on-the-job approach may be the latest example of what another company, Kinko's, calls "officing," a way to "help you get the job done just about anywhere you are, at any hour, any way possible."

Officing? Just in case you don't understand the concept as a gerund, Kinko's also describes its services as a verb, touting its 24-hour business centers as "The new way to office."

No longer, the company brags, is its typical 3 a.m. customer a student pulling an all-nighter on a term paper. Instead, more and more businesses are using its office services "in the wee hours of the morning," getting a head start while "the rest of the business community is sound asleep."

Ah, progress. Thanks to places like Kinko's and Host Marriott Services, you can now office while you treat the kids to an airport pizza. You can office while the rest of the world wastes time sleeping. You can even office while you're supposed to be on vacation in Tahiti.

CompuServe also makes an urgent case for cyberspace links. In a full-page newspaper ad, the online network emphasizes that computer users need "reliable connectivity" to read e-mail, access the Internet, contact clients, and connect with business news. "Your time is valuable," it warns. "You can't afford to squander it."

"Reliable connectivity" is certainly better than unreliable connectivity. But from beepers that buzz in the middle of concert halls to cell phones that ring in briefcases on city street corners, it is as though the old American Express line has been updated to read, "Your office. Don't leave home without it."

Today, as all these electronic wonders follow users to the ends of the earth, they raise a summertime question: How do you hang a "Gone fishing" sign on the door of a virtual office?

Never mind CompuServe's warnings. This is the season when busy Americans can't afford not to squander time, shamelessly and joyously. It is a season to watch cotton-puff clouds meander across a June-blue sky, to read short stories and long novels, to listen to music uninterrupted, to walk with no particular destination, to indulge in an old hobby or start a new one.

Down with the anxiety-producing Vacation Gremlins. Up with the brave and freeing concept of "disconnectivity," liberating oneself from at least some of the electronic tethers.

It's time for a virtual vacation.

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