What I did on my summer vacation

Wednesday Sep 1st 1999 by Chris Miksanek
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For most people, summer vacation is simply R&R. But for IT executives, it's A&A: alienation and anxiety.

In this article:
The AAA Guide to Los Angeles: IT Supplement
Last month, when Tempe, Ariz., CIO Gary Imoki bought a brand new Oldsmobile Silhouette minivan, complete with airline-style 5.6-inch LCD, flat-screen TV and VCR, his motive was not simply to use his vacation time before he lost it, but to spend some much needed quality time with his family. What he didn't realize was that time away from the office can be every bit as taxing as time behind the desk. Here is his story:


Illustration: Daniel Guidera
Day 1: 8:00 a.m.
The minivan's loaded like Jethro's truck, and we've voted that California is, indeed, the place we ought to be. Two days at Disneyland for the family; then we drop the kids off at Amy's parents while we enjoy some together time in Las Vegas.

We go over the checklist for the fifth time and then back out of the driveway.

Day 1: 8:45 a.m.
On the freeway, son Jeremy discovers he's left his "Spice World" videotape behind as well as the extra batteries for his Nintendo Gameboy. I suggest we just stop at the next Wal-Mart rather than lose the time doubling back. But daughter Annie trumps him by forgetting her Ricky Martin CD (apparently--and I don't understand any of this--she has the english version, but left the spanish version at home.) Being a fan of "I Love Lucy"'s Little Ricky, I can empathize; but I thought Annie was studying French in school, so this is all confusing to me. Again I suggest Wal-Mart, but when she confides to Amy that she's also left her "Skechers" at home--which I interpret as slang for something I don't want to know about--I turn the van around and head back home.

Day 1: 9:30 a.m.
The kids run back into the house. I take the opportunity to check my voice mail and find I have six messages. Two are marked urgent.

Everyone's back in the van, but I have to excuse myself for five minutes to get a quick e-mail off.

Day 1: 11:00 a.m.
I dash back out to the van, still running in the driveway. "That was a fast five minutes," Amy says, familiar with the routine. I try to explain how I was pulled into a teleconference but am shushed by my children. Jeremy is two-thirds of the way through his first (of what will be seven viewings) of "Spice World." Annie is repeatedly singing about some new Starbuck's creation: the Lavida Mocha. I'll have to try one of those when I get back in town.

Day 1: 11:05 a.m.
Bouncing out of the driveway at 25mph, I am reminded that this is not a rental car. Funny thing about rental cars, I start to tell Amy, they're designed to take speed bumps at 50 MPH, drive 100 miles with the oil light on and another 100 on a flat tire, and you can even snuff out your cigarettes in the upholstery. But she's not paying attention, her nose is buried in Elmore Leonard's, Be Cool.

I guess this is what they call quality time.

Day 1: 3:00 p.m.
Gas stop in Blythe and I need to check my messages. But my cell phone's not getting a signal here. I excuse myself from the family to use the pay phone inside. An hour later, Amy sends Jeremy in after me.

Day 1: 4:20 p.m.
I'm beginning to have second thoughts about being away from the office. So much is going on with the outsourcing negotiations and the problems with the online cut-over. I'll either look negligent for being away, or I'll be so buried when I come back, I'll look like I can't keep up. I start to get that knotted up neck muscle thing, which my wife perceptively picks up on.

"Relax," she says, "you're on vacation."

Easy for her to say, she's the one on Zoloft.

Day 1: 4:21 p.m.
Jeremy tells me for the 35th time during his second viewing that there aren't five Spice Girls anymore. One of them--I think he said "Paprika Spice"--left the group.

It's my breaking point.

"I swear to God, if I have to hear that one more time," I holler, "I'm gonna pull this van over!"

"And do what?" Jeremy asks. "Check your voice mail?" Everyone has a hearty laugh... except me.

Day 1: 9:00 p.m.
Arrive at the La Quinta Motel near Disneyland. As a business traveler, it's not quite what I'm used to--I wait 20 minutes at the ice machine while two men fill their bathtub-sized coolers.


Factoid: The 50-foot letters of the famous Hollywood sign, originally erected in 1923, are the equivalent of a 43,200-point Arial font.
The kids want to go down to the pool right away. I need to check my e-mail. I ask Amy to take the kids to the pool and promise I'll be down in 10 minutes.

Day 1: 10:15 p.m.
On my way down to the pool, I meet the family in the elevator coming back up. "That was fast," I say.

"Funny," Amy responds, "I was going to say the same thing... only more flippantly."

"Cripes, is it after 10 already? I'm supposed to be on a conference call with our Tokyo office."

Jeremy and Annie reluctantly turn off the in-room $9.95 movie they just ordered. Just as well for them, we need to get up early tomorrow to go to Disneyland.

Day 2: 7:30 p.m.
It's a very productive day at Disneyland. We break up into groups so that everyone can do what they want. Amy has the kids, and I have my Windows CE portable and a wireless modem.

I meet them at the exit gates, and they certainly show no signs of having spent the day at the "Happiest place on earth."

Me, I am grinning ear to ear. I know how to enjoy myself. No long lines for me. I spent the entire day pleasantly riding the train around the park answering my e-mail and doing a few meetings.

Amy tells me we have to talk.

Day 3: 6:00 a.m.
Rise and shine. We're off to Universal Studios.

The family is suspicious. "Don't you have to check your voice mail?" Jeremy asks.


"Yeah, or e-mail?" Annie says.

"I had a dream."

"What?" Amy asks. "The one where Orson Welles back sasses your grandmother about the buffet?"

"No. In this dream I was alone, just riding the train around Disneyland all day."

"Dad, that wasn't a dream. That's what you did yesterday."

Did I actually do that? I went to Disneyland with my family and ended up checking my e-mail? I'm pathetic. Well, anyway, that was the "decompressing" executive. Today starts a new me. A vacationing, Bermuda-shorts-wearing Gary Imoki. But first I need to check my voice mail.

"Hmmm, that's odd. No messages."

"Maybe it's a sign," Amy says.

Or an omen.

Day 3: 11:00 a.m.
I am dwelling on the peculiarity of having no waiting messages when Jeremy tries to draw my attention to someone he swears look like a singer. I think he says her name is Britney Spearmint--which strikes me as an odd name until I remember that I was once a big fan of "The 1910 Fruitgum Company." I don't really know where he is pointing, but give him an "uh, that's interesting," anyway.

Day 3: 8:00 p.m.
Amy asks what the best part of the tour was: Jaws? The stunt show? The rusted out car James Garner used to drive in "The Rockford Files?"

For me, it's getting back to the room to see what I missed. I press #2. I'm probably the only La Quinta guest who's bothered programming the phone for speed dial. Only one message.

"Do me a favor, Gary," Amy pleads. "Hang up and act like you're on vacation. The dream, remember?"

I hang up. "You're right. I'm gonna get some ice."

"Leave the cell phone here!"

Day 4: 7:00 a.m.
It's off to Amy's parents in Pasadena, where we drop off Annie and Jeremy for a few days.

I remind Jeremy to take his tape because Grandma might want to watch it with him... five or six times. Amy punches me in the arm.

Day 4: 11:00 a.m.
We take a scenic detour on our way to Las Vegas to visit an "authentic" Amish village. I didn't know there was such a thing in the desert, but for $5 we watch time stand still as they churn butter, weave blankets, and dally with IBM XTs.

Then it is time to move on. A whirlpool and bottle of champagne are awaiting us at the Stratosphere Hotel.

"You missed it," Amy says.

"No, the turn off is still ahead."

"OK, Mr. GPS, you're the driver, but it wouldn't kill you to just stop and ask someone for directions," she snips before going back to Elmore Leonard.

Real men don't ask directions--not when they have wireless Web access to www.mapquest.com. After a few mouse clicks, I'm doubling back 30 miles, and we're on Route 15 to Vegas.

Day 4: 4:30 p.m.
"How do you suppose you get an outside line?" I ask, toying with the phone. "Just kidding." But not really. I'm still dying to know how everything's going without me at the office.

The AAA Guide to Los Angeles: IT Supplement

Virginia may be for lovers, but if IT is your bag, L.A.'s the pLAce to be. Here's a sampling of what Shaky Town has to offer laptop schleppers.

The House of Chanel's Data Center
In an air-conditioned data center two levels below tony Rodeo Drive's Chanel Boutique, beats the heart of a sophisticated international network that manages everything from payroll for couturier and clerk alike, to the inventory for high-end salons in Paris and Milan, as well as factory discount outlets in Minsk and Bucharest. It's the Chanel data center, and it's open to the public.

The 45-minute tour begins with a short video narrated by Coco Chanel herself, describing back-office processing from her first shop in 1909 through her death in 1971. This year, an additional five minutes, narrated by Paloma Picasso, has been added describing the Euro crisis.

Tours run throughout the year, Monday-Friday, and begin on the hour. Admission: adults, $1,375; children ages two-12, $950; under two years old, $500. Includes a souvenir--a discarded swatch of cloth.

KMG 365: Shortcuts of Los Angeles
Imagine an exciting multimedia experience, sponsored by the Los Angeles County Fire Department Technology Group, that would make Rescue Squad 51's Roy DeSoto and John Gage drool epinephrine. Combining real-time Caltrans data with GPS technology and a front end by Yahoo! Maps, emergency response vehicles are now able to plot the fastest routes to victims. And you're at the helm of a simulator.

Runs continuously, at the Rampart General Hospital ER waiting area. Free.

"arrogance and absence"
Artist Roland DeQueue has created a piece of techno-art that's got everyone talking. Making use of some thirty hanging flat-screen monitors, his virtual paintings combine surrealism with an "in-your-face is my space" attitude. Some images were made with his toes controlling a trackball, others by shooting a BB gun at the mouse. Perhaps most his most provocative image is the aptly titled interactive "Helpdesk Angst" which consists of a Webcam mounted on top of the monitor aimed at the spectator.

Runs through December at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Free parking at the nearby La Brea Tar Pits. No additional charge with museum admission.

"So..." Amy says triumphantly, coming out of the bathroom wearing something even Janeane Garofalo wouldn't wear in a self-deprecating romantic-comedy, "How do I look?"

I don't need a computer to answer that, I need body armor: "Great ... is that a new ... uh ..."

"Swimsuit!"

Damn, that would have been my guess.

An afternoon at the pool and three frozen mai tais later, I have a revelation while watching the pool girls deliver drinks and the lifeguards apply neon paste to their noses. I'm on vacation. And it only took four days to figure it out.

Another mai tai, please, and to hell with that status meeting I was going to call into.

Day 4: 4:35 p.m.
I'm finally at peace when the bell captain passes by and stops to talk to someone nearby--the shade from his body makes me shift in my chaise recliner. He excuses himself, of course, then steps aside noticing my cell phone, beeper, portable computer, and sun block.

"On vacation, eh?"

"You Betcha!"

"I used to be on the fast track, too."

"Let me guess," I say, "but you hated the rat race so much you just dropped out and now you live in paradise--maybe schlep some rich old woman's cosmetic case up to her room, master the art of the discrete palm presentation and with great dignity pocket the sawbuck?"

"Actually," he begins, gesturing to ask if I mind whether he sits next to me, "I was on vacation, just like you, frequently checking back with the office to stay in the loop. As the messages got fewer and farther between, I let my paranoia get the best of me. I started thinking how maybe they could get by without me. It ate at me for the whole vacation. It was a miserable time for my family as I agonized over the pink slip that I knew would greet me on my return. My wife kept telling me to relax, but I had this feeling... that instinct you develop after you've been in the business for a while. Anyway, to make a long story short, I got back to my office on Monday..."

I know where this is going. "You got back and everything was just the way it was when you left, only the work had piled up!"

"No," he says. "I got laid off. Oh well. Hey, I have to get back to work. Listen, you have a nice vacation here in Las Vegas, and if there's anything you need, dial #40 from your room phone."

That's the trouble with vacations--they're too short. Mine lasted five minutes.

Day 4: 4:35 p.m.
Amy comes back with another couple of drinks and a $1.25 package of Doritos, which we split, three chips each.

"You know, I think losing my Palm Pilot in the Lazy River at the water park was a sign."

"What're you talking about?"

"You know, maybe it's time I considered another job, one with less stress. One where you can actually enjoy your vacation."

"You've worked in IT for 15 years, I go to get a snack for maybe two minutes and you're going to do what?"

"Maybe work at Radio Shack."

"Whoa! Hold on. Do you remember the two diminutive people who live with us? Have you heard of orthodontia? Or college?"

"Yeah, I know it sounds weird, but I think a lot about checking out of the rat race before someone does it to me--I mean for me."

"Is there something you're not telling me?"

"Just that with all the cut backs and reorgs you read about, you always have to be on the offensive--do the meetings, keep up with the minutia. Makes you wonder if people who dig ditches are happier. They leave their job when they go home."

"Maybe you should try that."

"Digging ditches?"

"No, leaving your job when you come home."

Day 5: 9:00 p.m.
It's time to pick up the kids and to start thinking about heading back to Tempe and a new job.

We spend the night at a Holiday Inn, where the ice line is much shorter--only two or three travelers with Igloo coolers.

I go to bed that night with renewed appreciation of my family and quality time. Getting terminated is liberating. I try to accept that as fact, not rationalization. So, I let my cell phone battery drain, throw my beeper in the glove box, and give Jeremy my Windows CE machine to surf the Web in the car (anything is better than another iteration of "Spice World").

Day 6: 10:00 a.m.
Yes, we slept in. And we take a dip in the pool, and the only thing I feel about my job is that I hope they at least pack the boxes for me so I can zip in, zip out, and get back to my family.

I even surf past MSNBC this morning and pitch the technology section of the newspaper in favor of the sports page.

Day 6: 2:10 p.m.
We're somewhere in Indio, Calif., and this is not working out quite as well as I had hoped. In a five-minute soliloquy of values and self-examination, I explain to Jeremy and Annie that I would most likely have to be looking for another job when we return to Tempe. Maybe as a cable installer or a prison guard. That we will have to cut back, but the ROI (whoops, old habits die hard) is a more solid nuclear family. I pour my heart out as only a mythical television father could. Then I realize they are both wearing headphones and didn't hear a word I said.

I couldn't bear to repeat it all. Amy says she heard "most" of it, and it was beautiful, but she is approaching the last chapter of Be Cool, and I know she is just humoring me.

Day 6: 6:50 p.m.
We're home. And the big surprise is that Jeremy's hamster is still alive. Of course he's disappointed because he's got his sights set on a ferret as soon as the hamster dies.

I'm going over the financing. Can we make it on a Taco Bell assistant manager's wages? It'll be rough, maybe we have to share a room in the trailer, but there are some things that are more important than creature comforts. These are concepts I would like to share with the kids, but they've already taken off.. Jeremy has run across the street to Tom's house, and I don't know where Annie is and I'm afraid to ask because, as my wife says, "she's at that age."

Day 6: 10:20 p.m.
The vacation is officially coming to a close, but out of habit, just before turning in, I dial in for messages. I barely hear the count. Was it really just one? Or 100, or one moment, please, your extension has been suspended?

Day 6: 7:40 a.m.
I pull into the company parking lot, and it's deja vu all over again. I've been here before. In fact, I've been here 15 years of Mondays before.

But this one is different. This time I'm backing my car in so I can load the trunk easier.

If they did pack my boxes, they better not have broken any of my mugs. Not that I'll need them sorting mail at the post office, but it would be a pretty cavalier way to terminate someone, trashing their personal property along the way. Then again, who cares? Give me my check, and let me get on with my Herbalife business.

Merle calls me into his office, "when I have a moment," which really means when he has a moment. I do as I'm told this one last time! I know what's coming and I'm over the separation anxiety, but I'm still nervous.

Merle picks up on that and makes a light comment about needing a vacation from a vacation. Figuring he's not going to be my boss much longer, I don't bother with the courtesy laugh I would normally extend to a superior.

Let's get this over with. I'm wasting time standing on formalities when I can be making $200 a week stuffing envelopes in my own home.

Two hundred a week. What am I thinking? I like a new car that starts when you turn the key. I want my kids to go to an accredited college, not get an A.A. from Sally Struthers' University. I like my satellite dish.

My heart's racing and my emotions are flying like... well, I'm too distracted to come up with a good analogy.

Merle hands me the envelope. It's not unlike what I expected, except that it's not pink. It is the same manila color as our twice-monthly payroll checks.

For a moment I hesitate, then I open it. It's just last week's payroll check. I think about the liberating life of a bus driver and take another peek at the gross amount on the check. Maybe this job's not so bad after all.

"How was your vacation?" asks Merle.

Too short. //

Chris Miksanek can be reached at ChrisMik@aol.com.


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