“Early Don’t Last Long”

Skip the B.S.

by Skip Eisiminger

“If you’ve got a frog to swallow, don’t study it too long.”

“Too soon the future is yesterday,
and still we sleep most of Saturday.”
—The Wordspinner

Skip Eisiminger
Skip & Lena (Photo by Ingrid Eisiminger)

Clemson, SC—(Weekly Hubris)—4/19/10—Have you ever been in a movie theater when, suddenly, the sound becomes distorted or the focus grows fuzzy?  Well, I’m the guy in the aisle seat near the back who finally gets up and goes to find the manager. “Carpe diem et noctem” (“Seize the day and the night”) has long been a motto of those who grew up as I did with a Presbyterian conscience. As my Sunday school teacher in South Georgia used to say, “If you ain’t doin’, you ain’t deservin’.”

One form of “doin’” that I enjoy is observing how many ways a chestnut can be pulled from the fire. I’ve been rescuing the Roman poet Horace’s “carpe diem” ever since high-school Latin, and I’m nowhere near shutting down that service.

Let’s start with the carpe punsters: there’s the antiquarian book dealer whose business is Carpe Libris, the extroverted poet who confesses that he loves to “carpe the podium,” the jealous feminist aiming to “carpe every swinging testicle,” the allusive angler who urges us to “seize the carp,” the psychiatrist who advises her patients to “carpe your demons and throttle them,” and the dog breeder who begs us to “Shar-Pei diem,” or “seize the wrinkled dog.”

Then there are the spin-offs that start from “seize.” In 2005, the state of Maryland’s Department of Tourism adopted the slogan, “Seize the day off.”  A consumer magazine for people with allergies and asthma calls itself Sneezetheday. More than one student has told me that Horace wrote “Cease the day.” And, in 2008, some anonymous Classics majors picketed the University of London, which was threatening to make cuts in their program, with signs reading, “Caesar the day.”  Come to think of it, “Caesar the day” could be a salad packaged for take-out, but it isn’t—yet.

As a former literature and humanities teacher, hardly a week went by when I wasn’t deconstructing the carpe theme in one author or another from “Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we shall die” in Isaiah, to “What is love? ‘Tis not hereafter . . .” in Shakespeare, to “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” in Robert Herrick, to “Do not hurry, do not rest” in Goethe, to “Let us endeavor to live so that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry” in Mark Twain, to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” in Dylan Thomas, to “There never was a body give an undertaker a tip” in Flannery O’Connor, and, to “If the doctor told me I had five minutes to live, I’d type faster” in Isaac Asimov.

Hearing their teachers harp on this notion as often as they do, students have developed their own versions of the ubiquitous theme. One Clemson golfer told me to “putt while the irons are hot” as a way to stop over-thinking my softball game. A fan of the psychedelic guitarist Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead said he was taking his spring break on the road where he hoped to “eat, drink, and see Jerry.” Wishing he could join him, his roommate advised, “Boogie ‘til you puke, Dude.”

Like students, teachers have their own variations on the theme. Not long ago, an English instructor with a strong Bostonian accent moved to New York. In class one day at Columbia (à la Robin Williams as Mr. Keating), the instructor urged his students to “capé the day.”

A puzzled student asked if he meant “carpe.”

“No,” the teacher insisted. “It’s capé; that’s the way all my teachers at Ha’va’d said it.” He later apologized.

I’m sure I’ve never read a complete management book but, from the office posters I’ve seen, business gurus must have taken Horace to heart. In the marketing department of a large Charlotte, N.C. bank, I saw employees being urged to “Get all the wood behind one arrowhead.” Judging from another poster, the boss apparently liked to be reminded to “have lunch or be lunch.” I have not seen it on a poster yet, but I know one business professor who liked to tell people on the university curriculum committee, “To ask permission is to seek denial.”

Finally, Cosmo Kramer, the “hipster doofus” of “Seinfeld” television fame, often had a hard time managing his own life, but he sounded positively managerial when he concluded a telephone order for a Chinese meal with, “extra MSG.”

Speaking of aggressive managers and marketing, Nike’s “Just do it” campaign has been very successful just as “Go for the gusto” has worked for Schlitz, and “Life is short, play hard” has worked for Reebok. Not wishing to be left in the dust of all those sneakered beer drinkers, the National Federation of Colombian Coffee Growers has urged people since the 1990’s to “grab life by the beans.” I can only speak for myself, but this line always makes me clench my butt and draw my knees in.

Once, after Juan Valdez had finished telling me that coffee grown in the mountains is richer than that grown in the valleys, Tim McGraw’s country hit, “Live Like You Were Dying” came on the radio. Had that been followed by an ad for The Dead Poets Society, I would have quit my Yoga class and dropped all pretense of reflection.

Coincidences aside, the comic pages of the Greenville News have supplied me with some of my favorite efflorescences of the carpe theme.

After a rare day in which everything went his way, Jeremy of Zits told his closest friend, “I totally carped the snot out of this diem.” It appears that the Zits creators, Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman, may have been recycling one of the most memorable Calvin and Hobbes appearances. As Calvin undresses preparing to bathe one evening, he tells his stuffed tiger, “My elbows are grass-stained, I’ve got sticks in my hair, I’m covered in bug bites and scratches. I’ve got sand in my socks and leaves in my shirt, my hands are sticky with sap, and my shoes are soaked!  I’m hot, dirty, itchy, and tired.” Leaning against the tub, a smiling Hobbes says, “I say consider this day seized!”

Lest you think that I’ve been mocking Horace, let me close with an analogy to what my predecessor more succinctly observed 2,000 years ago.

Every day is a “match.” You wake and strike the business end of one against a matchbox containing a finite but unknown number of tomorrows. If you have struck it right, the match flares up before slowly burning down to anxious fingertips. Meanwhile, two fingers of the other hand drop the box and go to the mouth for some saliva. Then, gently grasping the curling black stem, you wait as spit sizzles harmlessly in the index-thumb gap. Slowly, the match is turned upside down, while the flame is shielded from a stray breeze by cupped hands. Once the flame has died and the stick cooled, it is pulverized and placed on the compost heap.

Only now, do you sit back and contemplate the random dispersal of a day . . . that has been seized.

Dr. Sterling (“Skip”) Eisiminger was born in Washington DC in 1941. The son of an Army officer, he traveled widely but often reluctantly with his family in the United States and Europe. After finishing a master’s degree at Auburn and taking a job at Clemson University in 1968, he promised himself that he would put down some deep roots. These roots now reach back through fifty years of Carolina clay. In 1974, Eisiminger received a Ph.D. from the University of South Carolina, where poet James Dickey “guided” his creative dissertation. His publications include Non-Prescription Medicine (poems), The Pleasures of Language: From Acropox to Word Clay (essays), Omi and the Christmas Candles (a children’s book), and Wordspinner (word games). He is married to the former Ingrid (“Omi”) Barmwater, a native of Germany, and is the proud father of a son, Shane, a daughter, Anja, and grandfather to four grandchildren, Edgar, Sterling, Spencer, and Lena. (Author Head Shot Augment: René Laanen.)