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Jewish World Review Nov. 12, 1999 /3 Kislev, 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Is this progress? We have made the weekend obsolete -- AMERICA ONLINE was running some promotion or other on its welcome-to-the-site screen the other day, and one of the lures was the chance to own an "AOL weekender bag."

It seemed to be a gym bag -- one of those lightweight pieces of luggage in which you throw a few things before you leave the house. But the twin phrases -- America Online and "weekender" -- were sort of funny, because if AOL and what it stands for have helped to rob the world of anything, it's the concept of weekends.

Weekends, as they've always existed, have meant a two-day break -- a time to step away from the hurried pace of the workweek, to take a deep breath, to disconnect. Weekends have been (correctly) considered not a luxury, but a necessity -- without the weekly opportunity to step away from the tension and demands of Monday-through-Friday, the world would go insane.

What's that you say? That the world has gone insane?

Precisely the point. And part of the reason is that weekends no longer exist.

Saturdays and Sundays remain on the calendar. But the societal definition of the weekend as the time when you're permitted to walk away from the Monday-through-Friday screw-tightening -- that's long gone. And AOL -- not the company itself, but the computer-wired world it has become the symbol of -- is largely responsible.

Because there is no walking away -- no locking the office door and forgetting about your obligations until Monday morning. The world and its worries follow you home -- and not only do you not object, you say thank you. You are for some reason grateful that technology has enabled you to leave your workplace on Friday and step freely into . . .

Your workplace. Or a reasonable facsimile thereof.

It is one more instance of the new Age of Drudgery we have been discussing in this space. The computer age beckoned like a carnival midway come-on: Check your stocks at home! Catch up on the latest news! Don't miss a message! Communicate with colleagues even when you're not in the office!

It sounded like a treat -- sort of the grown-up version of home-schooling. But it became a harness -- one that we willingly slipped into, as if this ride was really going to be a barrel of fun.

The first hints of this could be seen in the news stories from a decade ago, about financial-market traders who were getting no sleep because they were waking up in the middle of the night to do business via their home computers with exchanges in Asia and Europe. The so-called "global opportunities" the technology allegedly offered to these traders was having a rather serious side effect: In order to keep ahead, they were having to forego sleep.

But they weren't us; we could look at those guys and think that their problems were specific to their high-finance occupations. Yet they were only the first wave, and as the world grew ever more connected, and we began to compulsively check our electronic mail, to obsessively switch our home computers on (just one more time tonight, we promised ourselves) to see what we might be missing. . . .

Well, we became full-timers. Full-time citizens of a new world in which doing nothing is the greatest sin. The same hidden fear that seemed to be driving those all-night stock traders -- If you let yourself relax and switch yourself off, someone may be gaining on you! -- became the governing theme of daily life itself. You're allowed to disconnect, every cultural message seemed to be telling you -- but if you do, you'll fall behind those who have chosen not to disconnect.

Thus, the new weekends -- those two days between Friday and Monday during which, or so the implication has it, only the slothful kiss the workweek goodbye. The weekends have become the bonus rounds, the extra innings -- the opportunity to get one more leg up on those who are foolish enough to smile and forget and have a lazy good time. Every signal we receive tells us that if we believe in the Saturday Evening Post weekends of yesterday -- weekends as the pleasingly languorous reward for the toil of the five days that preceded -- then we are not only throwbacks, but suckers.

The America Online weekender bag? What do you think people are going to use it for -- as a place to throw some clothes to take on a two-day drive to watch the leaves turn colors, or as a carrying case to take computer disks home from work Friday night to get a jump on Monday?

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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